The Daylight Gate was written by Jeanette Winterson to commemorate the 400th anniversary of the Pendle Witch Trials. I picked it up in a charity shop because I’ve never read anything by Jeanette Winterson before but I’m curious by what I’ve heard of her writing, and the witch trials have always been a morbidly fascinating topic for me. I’d not heard of this particular book, but I thought it’d be as good a place to start with Jeanette Winterson as any.
I read The Daylight Gate in one sitting which is something I haven’t done for a while, but unfortunately this doesn’t reflect my level of enjoyment. I didn’t read it in one sitting because it was ‘unputdownable,’ rather I read it in one go because it’s only a short novella and took under two hours to read, but I felt that if I put it down I just wouldn’t be motivated to pick it up again. Disappointingly, I didn’t really enjoy this book at all.
The story is a fictionalisation of the Pendle Witch Trials of 1612, which resulted in the execution of ten people for crimes involving witchcraft. There is an existing contemporary report detailing the trials and confessions of the accused which The Daylight Gate draws on, but it’s definitely a fictionalised version of what happened and presents magic as a real, vivid part of the lives of the ‘witches’ (particularly Alice Nutter).
I didn’t like this book for a number of reasons. Firstly, I felt that Jeanette Winterson was really trying to shock me as a reader with numerous references to incest, rape, child abuse, and women having sex with the devil, but it all felt a bit too try-hard for me. I didn’t feel that it was handled very skilfully, with the result being that it seemed sensationalist and kind of clumsy. I didn’t particularly like the actual writing style either, and based on the reviews I’ve seen of some of Jeanette Winterson’s other works, I was expecting her writing to be a bit more sophisticated. It might have been the way she chose to present this particular story, but I just didn’t find it that engaging to read.
I got the impression that a lot of the characters who were accused of witchcraft (and admitted to using it) had never actually succeeded in using magic at any point (much like the real people who confessed in the 17th century despite the fact it’s impossible to turn a person into an animal etc.), but when magic was clearly shown in The Daylight Gate it still wasn’t at all believable. As the novella’s based on a real trial it was obvious throughout that all of the ‘witches’ would be hanged, but I still found the ending quite anti-climactic. There was a bit of artistic licence used with Alice’s death, but that just felt like another completely unbelievable aspect to me. I’m happy to believe unbelievable things if they work within the context of the story, but I almost felt like Jeanette Winterson hadn’t given enough thought to the magical elements in terms of what is and isn’t possible within the bounds of her story and how she was going to present it.
I really didn’t like any of the characters, which in itself would be fine, but I also didn’t like the presentation of any of the characters. I found the characterisation of Alice Nutter particularly irksome because she was mostly described in terms of how young she looked, and subsequently how everyone wanted to have sex with her. The suicide of Christopher Southworth was extremely frustrating (and kind of unnecessary), and lent its way towards lazy character tropes. He suddenly decided he was in love with Alice, and was going to kill himself so he wouldn’t be separated from her. If there’s one thing I absolutely can’t bear, it’s insta-love. He hadn’t seen her for years, then he spent one night with her (because of course no one can see Alice without instantly wanting to have sex with her, even if they’re physically incapable), and that was enough for him to fall so deeply in love that he’d kill himself because she was dead. Just no! It’s so clichéd, not to mention completely infuriating and (yep, here’s my buzz word again) SO unbelievable! As far as I’m concerned, if that’s the angle the writer goes with, all it shows is lazy characterisation and lazy plotting. It’s such an overdone trope that it’s inexcusable. Poor show, Jeanette Winterson. Very poor show.
So, in case you couldn’t tell, I was really disappointed with this book. Considering the events it was based on, I thought the resulting story was mediocre at best, failed to hold my interest, and was poorly executed. I’m going to hope that The Daylight Gate is just a dud in the Jeanette Winterson oeuvre, because I just don’t understand the fuss if all of her writing’s like this. I’m annoyed, because the concept held so much promise, and I feel it could have been a really brilliant story if it was handled differently, but I’m struggling to think of a single redeeming feature. I’m not going to rule out reading Jeanette Winterson again because I’ve been wanting to read Oranges are Not the Only Fruit for a really long time, and it does sound like it’s a very different sort of book to The Daylight Gate. Hopefully that will be a more positive experience, I can’t help feeling that the only way is up from here!
See previous Book Review featuring John Boyne’s Crippen.