Susan Fletcher’s story of Corrag, a 17th-century Scottish woman accused of being a witch and waiting to be burnt at the stake for her alleged crimes, stayed with me in a number of ways. A day after finishing Witch Light, I discovered a heavy leather-bound book (‘found’ by my boss) entitled A History of Scottish Witchcraft on the desk of the children’s book shop where I work. I thought it was incredibly mystical.
I also couldn’t escape Corrag’s voice, her simple appreciation for the world around her and how she opens it up; ‘Rocks can have a thousand colours in them- grey, brown, purple-grey, dark-blue. They can have moss and lichen on their sides, and heather, and birch trees, and water falls… I saw these things.’ Fletcher weaves dense imagery with an involving and personal narrative that creates a character so familiar that it’s hard to finish the novel without seeing the world through Corrag’s eyes; her senses are completely immersive. Fletcher is intent on drumming home the character of Corrag, and the novel is besotted with her, revolving around her, until we too become besotted.
The novel begins with Corrag recounting disrupted cycles of time and unrecognisable characters and landscapes, all with no excuse for Corrag’s strong and primarily ambiguous language; her first line references only ‘they’, leading into a romantic appraisal of mountains, rocks, sunshine and skirts. As we proceed through the novel and become more acquainted with Corrag’s voice, we learn that she is relaying her life in the run-up to the 1682 massacre of the Scottish Macdonald clan. Corrag had stayed with this clan for a number of years before the massacre and felt herself a part of the group. The clan had a loyalty to the exiled King James II, yet to save themselves signed an oath to the current King William III that was received six days too late. A bloody slaughter ensues, in which Corrag is caught, chained, and made to await her fate.
Because of the novel’s structure, we think we know how the story ends, and for this it becomes one of those wonderfully annoying books that you can’t put down; we assume that Corrag is killed at the end, and we watch her shackled, dreading the passing of winter and the oncoming of spring, when her hanging is due to take place. We grow attached to Corrag, our eyes and our ears, and as we get closer to her execution date the tiniest slither of hope that she will be rescued pushes us to keep reading. Fletcher’s greatest achievement in this fine novel is Corrag—an all-encompassing character gifted with a voice that survives even after the novel ends.