By Sarah Addison Allen
Bantam, 304 pp., $20
The Witchs Trinity
By Erika Mailman
Crown, 278 pp., $23.95
Forms of Shelter
By Angela Davis-Gardner
Dial, 336 pp., paperback, $13
Sarah Addison Allen's first novel tosses magical realism and romance into a story about two sisters struggling to understand each other. Erika Mailman's second historical novel, set in medieval Germany, is an unsettling reminder, if we needed another one, of what can happen when the worst in human nature prevails. In Angela Davis-Gardner's second novel, reissued along with two other of her works from the 1980s and '90s, the author's humanity is plain on every page.
Allen's "Garden Spells" is a romantic novel steeped in magic, reminiscent of Laura Esquivel's "Like Water for Chocolate." Allen writes gracefully. Her main characters and their relationships are nicely developed. Despite these and other strong points, "Garden Spells" wears its charm self-consciously. Claire Waverley is a caterer in quiet Bascom, N.C., where she grew up, but a rather unusual one. Her recipes are laced with flowers and herbs carefully chosen to cast appropriate spells. It seems all the Waverley women have "the gift," supernatural powers that manifest themselves in different ways. Evanelle, Claire's eccentric 79-year-old cousin, is locally famous for bringing people odd gifts that turn out, sooner or later, to be exactly what they need. Claire lives in her late grandmother's house, where the garden blooms year-round and an enchanted, temperamental apple tree tempts and taunts those who come near by tossing around its fruit and leaves. Anyone who tastes one of its apples will have a vision of the future, the best - or the worst - to come.
Claire's younger sister, Sydney, missing for 10 years, turns up in Bascom with her 5-year-old daughter, Bay, who seems to have inherited the family gift. Sydney doesn't talk about her past, but the reader learns that she's been leading a wild life, emulating her mother, who walked out on her two daughters when they were young and later died in a car crash. Sydney finds work at a local hair salon, and soon she's transforming her clients' lives with fabulous haircuts. That's her gift. Meanwhile, the sisters' new next-door neighbor, Tyler, is smitten by Claire, who keeps trying to discourage him with casseroles spiked with herbs designed to discourage his attentions. Naturally, since this is a romantic story, the herbs only make him more ardent. The magic, the romance, the odd foodstuffs, almost succeed in transforming this family story into something more exotic.
A plague-ravaged, famine-stricken German village in 1507 is the setting for Mailman's disturbingly effective historical novel "The Witch's Trinity." Dominican friar Johannes Fuchs has arrived in Tierkinddorf to root out the witches who, he tells the villagers, have brought on the famine. The narrator, Güde Müller, is a widowed grandmother living with her son Jost, her daughter-in-law, Irmeltrud, and their two small children. Irmeltrud, tired of feeding the old woman, throws her out of the house to beg one freezing night. Güde wanders into the woods and sees, or imagines she sees, the devil and his handmaidens roasting a pig. They offer her food if she'll sign the devil's book. She refuses. Then Güde's childhood friend Künne, a herbal healer, is accused of witchcraft by villagers who complain that she has made them barren, caused milk to sour and hens to stop laying. Künne is forced by the Dominican inquisitor to endure a trial by boiling water before being found guilty and burned alive. When the famine doesn't abate, the villagers cast about for more witches. Irmeltrud, seeing a way to be rid of her mother-in-law, accuses Güde of practicing witchcraft.
Mailman captures the villagers' desperate hunger and fear. She plunges readers into the storm of ignorance, superstition, and religious frenzy that incited mass hysteria. It's a disturbing story told with clarity and precision, an old story that has resonance today. In a very interesting author's note at the end of the novel, Mailman describes how she discovered that one of her maternal ancestors, Mary Bliss Parsons of Northampton, to whom she dedicates this book, was tried and acquitted of witchcraft twice, first in 1656 and again in 1675.
Davis-Gardner is a North Carolina native, but only one of her novels is set in her home state. "Forms of Shelter" is an emotionally complex story about a resilient young girl and her harrowing childhood and adolescence. Beryl's adored father sneaks off in the night when she is 5 years old, headed to Chicago with his saxophone and his dreams of being a jazz musician. He leaves his unstable wife, Beatrice, with Beryl and her younger brother, Stevie. With nowhere else to turn, Beatrice takes her little family to live with her strange mother and taciturn father. It's a miserable life. Eventually Beatrice, who wants to be a writer, becomes involved with Jack Fonteyn, chairman of the classics department at the nearby university and independently wealthy. Jack is their savior, Beatrice tells the children, but they know better. They instinctively mistrust the smooth-talking professor with his intellectual pretensions and his passion for beekeeping. Beryl seeks shelter from a young life that involves madness, desertion, rape, betrayal, and a bizarre suicide attempt. The story follows her into adulthood, where she tries to come to terms with the losses she has experienced and finds a kind of salvation in writing. "Forms of Shelter" shows Davis-Gardner to be an assured stylist whose work deserves to be more widely read.
Diane White writes every month about new light and popular fiction.