Witchcraft by Nigel Williams

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So many good stories start with the discovery of a dusty tome in a library or second-hand bookshop somewhere – The End of Mr Y, Journey to the Centre of the Earth, and so on – that it is no surprise when Jamie Matheson happens upon a manuscript in the British Library. Written by Ezekiel Oliphant, a 17th century witchfinder, it starts to exert exactly the sort of sinister pull over Jamie that you would hope it might. My copy is nearly 30 years old, with a blue-bleached sun mark across its cover. At least I don’t think it’s part of the original design. And the novel feels heavier somehow than today’s books – can that be possible? – and has that slightly crypt-ish whiff to it. Perhaps it’s the accumulated dust of the decades. But then, CDs from the 1980s are denser, clunkier objects than those you pick up at Fopp now. Actually 1986, described contemporaneously in Witchcraft, does indeed seem like another country: Jamie has to use payphones because hardly anyone has a mobile – and of course he can’t Google Ezekiel because Google won’t be founded for another 12 years. Hence he has to labour at his desk. But it’s there that he meets the lovely Anna and starts an affair, thus betraying his wife Margaret and their children. But there’s something familiar about those names…they crop up in Ezekiel’s account of his own violent, strange life during the English Civil War. It’s almost as though history might be about to repeat itself… In truth, Witchcraft is 80 or so pages too long. Not the last 80 pages, but the fourth fifth of the book, if you see what I mean. True, Jamie is suffering a breakdown (he knows that the UK is run by a coven of witches, and has been for centuries), but there is no need for the author to literally lose the plot. However, Nigel Williams is far too good a writer to blow it completely: there are plenty of great moments and I can see why it gripped me so long ago. Interesting that I had forgotten the longeurs but I suppose that’s history for you. You tend to remember the bits that fit your narrative.

 

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