It is the early 1800s, and Isobel Gamble is travelling with her husband Edward from Scotland to Salem, the New England Town notorious for its 17th century witch trials. Isobel is a talented seamstress who seeks to make a living with her needle once it becomes apparent her husband will not provide for her. She is also presented as the inspiration for the character of Hester Prynne in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s novel The Scarlet Letter, published in 1850.
Hester follows the ups and downs of Isobel’s life, her struggle to be accepted in her new home, and her fears that she herself could be regarded as a witch. She experiences synaesthesia – seeing ideas and feelings as vivid colours – and she, along with those she meets and perhaps even the reader, is forced to wonder whether she does in fact have supernatural powers. Her story is interspersed with flashbacks to historic witch hunts, both in Salem and in Scotland.
This is a richly textured work with lots of sumptuous description of fabrics and embroidery. It provides a vivid portrait of Salem and the class and race hierarchies of the early 19th century.
Nathaniel Hawthorne plays a prominent role in the story, and we meet a wide cast of other characters. These include Edward, the feckless husband; the initially suspicious Mercy who eventually becomes a loyal friend; and William Darling, the quietly supportive sea captain.
The novel is ambitious, weaving together many disparate elements. Apart from Hawthorne and his writing, and Isobel’s needlework, we have the condition of synaesthesia, witchcraft trials in Scotland and the New World, and the “underground railroad” that helped escaped slaves to reach freedom.
Unfortunately – to take a metaphor from the story – I felt that the various parts of the design were not sufficiently tightly bound together, and that they did not create a seamless whole. I also wondered whether a reader who was not familiar with The Scarlet Letter would fully appreciate the relevance of Nathaniel Hawthorne to the story. And – perhaps a minor quibble – I was taken aback by one glaring error, when Isobel says “Scots are English” (a phrase that no Scot has ever uttered…)
However, the story carried me along, and I could empathise with Isobel and her friends. A mixed experience, but enjoyable.
Hester, Laurie Lico Albanese, Duckworth, 2022, 9780715654767