There are two reasons I was drawn to Susan Hill’s book The Man in the Picture. Firstly it was set in Venice, a place I love with all my heart and a great setting for spooky stories such as Daphne Du Maurier’s Don’t Look Now. I’m cheekily sharing some of those spooky corners I captured in photographs when I was last there. Secondly, when I started reading and our hero is in the rooms of his professor it reminded me so much of my friend Nigel, whose home was festooned with art, Venetian chandeliers and antique clocks. I feel that with all of Susan Hill’s books she raises the tension so slowly that you barely notice rather like the proverbial frog placed in a pan of cold water – the temperature changes so subtly the frog doesn’t jump out and is boiled to death. I often find myself reading one of her novellas thinking it isn’t really scary until I hear an unexpected noise and jump out of my skin! That’s a real skill.
Our hero visits his professor on a cold winter’s night and notices a beautiful painting of the Venice carnival. For the first time he is told a macabre story about the painting. It doesn’t just imitate a Venetian scene, it can entrap someone within it. Whoever stares into the painting finds it exerts a power over their life and as Theo talks to others who’ve crossed paths with it, he unearths a profound sense of foreboding and unease. Within the painting is a young man, watching the festivities but instead of happiness there’s a look of horror on his face. Everyone else is masked, covering their identity. The professor is so attached to the painting that he has turned down lucrative offers for it. The narrator becomes interested in tracing the man in the picture, but finds much more than he bargains for as his professor dies and the painting passes into his hands. This obsession is compounded when his he gets married and his new wife Anne wants a honeymoon in Venice. Will they go and if they do what will happen to the picture?
This is a great novella that’s easy to read in an evening or afternoon. Best read in front of a roaring fire on a wintry night. Having been to Venice, I can vouch for how creepy it can be at night. There’s a creeping fog over the canals and many areas that become deserted at night leaving only the sound of water and boats creaking at their moorings. If you get lost at night, it can feel like an endless maze where you wouldn’t be surprised to see a masked and cloaked figure on a balcony. Hill brings that menace and mystery to the book, as well as a sense of evil. It made me think twice about buying any paintings when I was in Venice.
Meet The Author
Susan Hill has been a professional writer for over fifty years. Her books have won awards and prizes including the Whitbread, the John Llewellyn Rhys and the Somerset Maugham; and have been shortlisted for the Booker. She was awarded a CBE in the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee Honours. Her novels include Strange Meeting, I’m the King of the Castle, In the Springtime of the Year and A Kind Man. She has also published autobiographical works and collections of short stories as well as the Simon Serrailler series of crime novels. The play of her ghost story The Woman in Black has been running in London’s West End since 1988. She has two adult daughters and lives in North Norfolk.
This month I took some time off from blog tours and other commitments to spend a couple of weeks reading my own choices. Not only did this give me a lot of freedom, it allowed me to read one of my all time favourite authors followed by one of my most recent loves; Alice Hoffman and Alix E. Harrow. Even more of a coincidence is that both have written books based within the folklore of witches, healers, and wise women. In Hoffman’s case this is her third novel in the Practical Magic series, which delves back further than ever before to the origins of the Owens family and the formation of communities whose religion will not suffer a witch to live. Harrow also creates a world of sisters, three separated sisters who come together at the very beginning of the 20th Century and the suffragette movement.
In Magic Lessons, Maria is found as a baby by wise woman Hannah Owens, who brings her up with the old ways. Maria learns how to grow a healing garden, to use herbs for ailments of body and mind, and help women with problems caused by love. However, Maria’s power isn’t just learned. She has the mark of a blood witch from her birth mother, and has been chosen by her familiar Cadin who is a crow. Maria feels she must be the result of a woman being fooled by love and vows not to be taken in by a man. Tragically, Hannah is burned as a witch and Maria knows she must run to save her life. She meets her mother and birth father, and realising there is no room in their love for a third person she takes a gift of red boots and sails to the island of Curacao where she has been sold into servitude for a period of five years. Here, her vow against love will be tested. Taking us through the dangerous years of the 17th Century, where Puritanical communities like Salem in Massachusetts were whipped to hysteria, and would not suffer a witch to live. Hoffman’s prequel to Practical Magic takes us back to the beginnings of the Owens family and the complicated relationship between their power and the very human need to be loved.
I had been waiting for this prequel for a long time and I wasn’t disappointed. It only took me moments to be in Hoffman’s magical world thanks to the layers of description she uses to create an unusual atmosphere. In some senses she creates an instantly recognisable sense of place. Her descriptions of Massachusetts, and later, Brooklyn are full of local floral and fauna, the sense of wilderness and pioneering spirit within these early settlers of the Americas. It is dark, foggy, wet and often icily cold with dangerous animals and even more dangerous people. By contrast the time spent travelling to the West Indies and the beautiful island of Curacao are vivid. In the daytime full of colour, exotic flowers and birds and I could feel the sun on my face, the warm sand beneath my feet and the incredible animals such as the turtles and tiny hummingbirds. By night, when Maria and her friend explore the island, it is still warm, with a vast sky full of stars. On the other hand there are times when these places seem otherworldly as we see them through the eyes of a witch: the magical properties of plants, the incredible loyalty of an wild animal like Keeper the wolf, and the witches’ power to control these elements to their advantage. It’s our world but not quite. The difference is viewing it through the lens of history, but most unimportantly, by magic.
There were times I didn’t fully understand Maria, although she’s the more sympathetic character of the three generations. She protects herself against love after seeing what it did to her mother, but then later says she couldn’t protect herself against love. I think this is almost a push and pull between the human and more magical signs of her character. She tries to use her power to prevent love, but perhaps her heart truly longs for it. The tragedy is in protecting herself against the right man, while letting the wrong one in. I find her choice to go to Massachusetts with her daughter Faith inexplicable given that she has friends and support in Curacao. John Hathorne is a very dangerous man, to women in general and not just the witches he persecutes. He drags young girls into a battle he is constantly fighting between his appetites and his conscience. There is part of him that emerged in Curacao that wants to shed his responsibilities, to throw off inhibition and dive into the sea as well as give in to his passions for a woman he desires. In Massachusetts he is a pillar of the Puritan community, yet he marries his wife Ruth when she is just 14 and his ward. She describes crying as he takes her to the marital bed, but her fear and young age does not stop him. It’s worth mentioning that in a historical context this isn’t unusual, but to me it shows a lack of compassion and respect for women. He turns his back on his daughter, both when she’s a baby and when she returns as a young woman. Maria, his wife Ruth and his daughter Faith are all his victims. Samuel, or Gogo as Faith calls him, is a good man and I was desperate for him to win Maria over. He is not scared of Maria or her power. He loves her intelligence, her fortitude and her power. I could have cried for how much time is wasted as Maria fights him.
I enjoyed the way Hoffman weaves in the historical context for America in this period. These are early settlements, some first colonised by the Dutch then by the English. She doesn’t forget the indigenous tribes either, often completely massacred by these ‘Christian communities’ who hold themselves in such high regard. They hold women with healing knowledge in the same regard as these natives of USA, as if they are cleansing their area of magical and primitive beliefs. Hoffman doesn’t forget her Jewish heritage either, situating them as a persecuted race often moved on from areas they’ve settled and treated with suspicion. We see this in the characters of Samuel and his father, who have chosen a life on the sea instead, but still hold their heritage close to their hearts. There’s a sense in which Christianity is anti-magic whereas Judaism is closer to ancient magic and respectful of its power, especially in its capacity to do good. The only time Samuel stops Maria from practicing her magic is when it’s in a darker form, as she tries everything to keep his father alive. The Christian beliefs practised by the Dutch and English settlers has become corrupted and Hoffman presents their acts as the very evil they fear. When Maria is taken for the trial by drowning in Massachusetts, there is a frenzy and mob like mentality that is seen later in real life witch trials of Salem and the fictional arrest and trial endured by Faith. When Faith is taken by a Christian woman, confined and forced to live as her daughter we again see obsession and evil. Her captor never seems to doubt she is doing God’s work removing Faith from her mother, taking her far away and putting her in irons to remove her power. Yet this evil, begets more evil as Faith escapes and uses her freedom to practice blood magic steeped in anger and revenge. Yet she still has a conscience. Faith is haunted by the death of her captor, despite helping women to wreak revenge and enchantment by night.
I would have liked to see a more time between John Hathorne’s wife Ruth and Maria, because they were both exploited by the same man. I also think that there was perhaps too much complex detail in the women’s appearances such as Faith’s changing hair colour or the different colours of thread used for different purposes. I found myself becoming confused at times, but it’s a small issue in a magical story. I think this was a thoughtful and atmospheric origins story of a family many fans have come to love. I think the strength of this series is in that combination of the mystical and the very human elements of the story. Despite their powers Maria, her mother Rebecca and her daughter Faith experience the highs and lows of every woman’s life – the changes of adolescence, falling in love with the wrong man and the right one, motherhood, illness and ageing. I felt emotional as Maria saw her ‘mother figure’ Hannah murdered by men who feared her, as she realised the man she loved didn’t really exist, and as she lost Cadin her loyal companion. These women’s fight to be accepted and even acknowledged for their skills is a fight that continues today as we fight for women’s rights to equal pay, to save reproductive rights and to be seen as more than sexual objects. Their fight to stay alive is still echoed in our fight to stop child brides, exploitation of young girls and domestic abuse. It was a series coming full circle, as we see the formation of that mistrust of love that shapes Jet’s journey or that sees Gillian constantly pick the wrong man. I truly loved my time back with the Owens women again.
Meet The Author
Alice Hoffman is the author of thirty works of fiction, including Practical Magic, The Red Garden, The Dovekeepers and, most recently,The Museum of Extraordinary Things. She lives in Boston. This book is the prequel to Practical Magic and The Rules of Magic.