The Curse of the Toads
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This issue’s cover shows Neil Gaiman (photo © Kelli Bickman) with his book The Comical Tragedy or Tragical Comedy of Mr Punch illustrated by Dave McKean. Neil Gaiman is interviewed by Nicholas Tucker. Thanks to Bloomsbury for their help with this November cover.
A toad hopping near a dying man, a toad-shaped birthmark on a newborn’s face, a leaping cat. In 17th-century England it only takes a little malevolence to link these to the old woman, gifted with herbs, who lives alone with her orphaned grandson, Reuben. Soon the rumours build, stoked by villager Meg Silver, and Reuben has the horrific experience of watching his grandmother hanged for a witch. Their cottage is stolen by the Silvers and Reuben flees the village. Tramping the highway, he is picked up by a quack apothecary, Dr Flyte and his doltish sidekick, Baggs. Reuben likes neither of them, but at least the apothecary’s cart offers the promise of temporary shelter. However, this apparent ‘rescue’ is no accident. Flyte knows all about Reuben’s family and is convinced he can work his grandmother’s magic. It’s bad enough being embroiled in the deception of credulous villagers, the butt of both Flyte’s cruelty and Baggs’ envy; then Flyte forces Reuben to concoct a ‘cursing potion’ to revenge himself on a village enemy.
So far, so gothic, but a brief summary doesn’t do justice to this beautifully crafted novel. The Curse of the Toads is divided into two narrative strands, which alternate between Reuben’s anguished, bereft experience in the present at Flyte’s mercy and memories of his grandmother. Lisle unobtrusively demonstrates Reuben’s struggle to hold on to a growingly precarious sense of identity and hope through his happier thoughts of his Granny (embodied in the stray dog, Shadow, who attaches herself to Reuben and comforts him). He consciously summons her kindness and wisdom as a talisman in the face of a present homelessness which is both physical and spiritual. This psychological acuity echoes in the wider story which gradually uncovers something of both Baggs’ and Flyte’s troubled history and demonstrates surprising links between the characters’ fates.
The Curse of the Toads is an unflinching portrait of 17th-century life, faithful to the author’s research, recounted in vigorous, at times poetic language. If the reader has to wait for the final chapter for the alleviation of a prevailing bleakness, the sheer descriptive energy and powerful characterisation offer a vivid counterweight. CH