Thursday, 23 August 2012

Review: "Burning Issy" - Melvin Burgess

From Pauline Chandler –

“Burning Issy” – Melvin Burgess

Making friends with the witch’s child, Jennet, is dangerous for orphan girl, Issy.  This is 17thc. England, when witches were routinely tortured and burned to death, and Issy herself is mocked as someone ‘kissed by the Devil’, and bound straight for hell. She is known as ’Burning Issy’ because of the burn scars on her face and suffers a recurrent nightmare about being burnt in a fire and seeing a face in the flames. 

Kind-hearted Issy sees more than witchcraft in Jennet. She knows that her friend is half-starved, lonely and savagely bullied by her own mother, Squinting Annie and grandmother, Old Demdyke, both notorious witches.  In their innocence, neither of the girls sees much wrong with being a witch. Jennet is afraid of her grandmother,  but she looks forward to becoming a proper witch herself, because then the others will stop bullying her. The witches, who live up in Malkin Tower, scare Issy, but when the chance comes to get observe their rituals, her curiosity overcomes her fear.

The story takes a dramatic twist when the witches lay claim to Issy as ‘one of their own’ and force her to join them, by threatening her foster-brother, Ghyll.  As Issy prepares to move to Malkin Tower, a stranger arrives, someone who also lays claim to Issy’s future.   

The Pendle Witches, the deaths by burning, the brews, the chants, the familiars, the wax mannikins: all this is well-explored material. Melvyn Burgess breathes fresh life into the story, with an array of engaging characters, who inhabit a real world where, day after day, they battle disease, starvation and hardship. It’s a world we can identify with, where a lonely child might well be desperate to have a friend, any friend, even the daughter of a witch. It’s also a world of surprises. This is more than a straightforward historical adventure With his customary skill, Melvin Burgess raises some searching questions about witchcraft.   

What I especially love about this novel is the character of Issy. Without parents or history, scarred and mocked, haunted and lonely, she shows resilience, immense courage and selflessness, in her quest for a better life. Does Issy win out in the end?  I don’t think I’m spoiling any secrets to say that she does. Perhaps, though, not in the way we predict.  

An enthralling story, beautifully told, about 17thc witches, full of historical detail, accurately described, with an unpredictable ending.

Pauline Chandler

August 2012  



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