|Design by Henry Steadman|
Jo Fletcher Books, 26 November 2020
Available as: PB, 310pp, e
Source: Advance PB copy
I'm very grateful to Jo Fletcher Books for an advance copy of Witch Bottle to consider for review.
Witch Bottle is an impressive book, a fusion of classic horror with a story of modern life and broken relationships which left me feeling deeply uneasy.
Daniel is a delivery worker. Every morning he wakes before dawn and bikes to the depot where he loads up his van under direction from the Bean, a wiry, enigmatic woman who runs a food wholesaler serving the scattered communities and businesses of western Cumbria. Daniel spends his day driving up and down the fells and along the coast, trying to keep on schedule, juggling his stock and battling with the weather, other van drivers and the vagaries of the customers. When it's going well, he feels like Postman Pat - though the money's not very good. When it's going badly... well, if you read the book you'll find out.
Daniel hasn't always worked like this, living in a house borrowed from an uncle and going nowhere in his career. He used to live in the town with a wife and a daughter: the moment he walked out on them is the opening of the book (occasional chapters give flashbacks to that life, gradually filling in the picture - a nightmare pregnancy for his wife Ellie and dark echoes beyond that to his own childhood). On that day Daniel sees the first hints of the dark and fantastical things that will haunt him on his deliveries, in his lonely cottage and, increasingly, in the relationships he's trying to build. There is something sinister going on out there, in the fields and on the roads. Fletcher matches it with hints of a darker, wider world too: a war that seems to be several notches worse than those we're aware of now, the descent of the health service into uncaring chaos, the repeated justification for a man bullying or abusing women that 'he's a real man, he's how men used to be'.
Against this alarming background of war and the rumour of war, Daniel does find some warmth and love with Kathryn, who runs the La'al Tattie Shop. (Some of the chapters are seen from her point of view). Kathryn is also a witch and the matter-of-fact acceptance of this in the writing that - it's presented as more a logistical than a supernatural problem - drives much of the story. Witches have businesses too and Kathryn needs to make her deliveries, but she's stuck in the shop all day and Daniel doesn't think the Bean would be pleased if he combined them with his rounds. That practical approach is very much the mood of this book, presenting the fantastical and (increasingly) the horrific in a muted "what can you do?" way that is more and more unsettling - oddly it really brings the atmosphere of horror home to see it brought home (as it were).
As well as contributing to the eerie effect of the novel that normalisation also reflects the truth of what is going on here. Kathryn warns Daniel that the menacing hooded figure he sees outside his cottage has a connection to him - only by working out what it is might he be free of it. Her "witch bottle" is masking the symptoms, not providing a cure. So the book is - besides many other things - an exploration of Daniel's past, of his mistakes, even as he's trying to hold onto his job. Daily routines, work problems, bickering with colleagues and managing the van make up quite a bit of the story alongside some glorious evocations of the Cumbrian landscape (and allowing a bit of a respite from the growing darkness - tbough it's always threatening). Bt so do memories of Daniel's marriage, the despair at trying to get a difficult baby to sleep. And so do unsettlingly memories of his own childhood. All of this seems to be connected, somehow, as it is with the darkening state of the world.
Overall a deeply moving, deeply troubling book - and one I'd strongly recommend.
For more information about Witch Bottle, see the publisher's website here.