Review by Tracey Sinclair.
Although more a novella than a full length novel, this tale of the Lancashire witch trials is gripping and compelling, though not a book for the squeamish. Winterson takes historical fact and real life characters (including John Dee and Shakespeare) and meshes them together into a dark, rich story of bigotry and magic, held together with a tattered thread of romance.
There is far more to mysterious cloth merchant Agnes Nutter than meets the eye, but even her otherworldy resourcefulness cannot save her from being dangerously drawn into a superstitious witch hunt and the merciless campaign to root out ‘Popish’ traitors in the wake of the failed Gunpowder Plot. Winterson doesn’t shy away from the politics behind such campaigns – and the way in which the poor and politically inconvenient were targeted – and the book’s matter-of-fact portrayal of rape and torture might make some stomachs quail, while the lurid descriptions of black magic rituals can seem a little overwrought. The majority of its characters’ lives are the epitome of the Hobbesian ‘nasty, brutish and short’, their deaths as squalid and pitiable as their existences, and this isn’t a novel to read if you are a fan of happy endings.
But for all its horror, there is idealism and even optimism in the story – there is a touching nobility in Agnes’ refusal to abandon her past lover (a witch who betrayed her) and her attempts to protect her current love, a Catholic traitor to the crown, even though she may be doomed by her efforts, and it is this belief in the redemptive power of love that stops The Daylight Gate from being overwhelmingly bleak. You may be left wishing that Winterson had delved deeper into the world she describes – it can at times seem like she is skating the surface of a universe that deserves more examination – but overall this is an evocative, original tale that will stay with you long after you have read it.