In 1612, twelve innocent women from small villages close to Pendle Hill in East Lancashire were hanged as witches. The Black Air moves the story to the mythical hamlet of Long Byrne, with 18 women hanged on the moor in 1623 and mysterious events through the centuries accredited to the work of their long-dead presences, most notably those of Rose Ackroyd and Jane Hollingworth.
When headteacher Miss Rillington announces that the village is staging a re-enactment of the story of the two girls on the four hundredth anniversary of their deaths, inseparable friends Tawny and Caitlin become involved-Cate, with her fascination with the witches, as scriptwriter for a play based on the story and Tawny, with her acting ambitions, as Rose Ackroyd. Cate is vulnerable: her mother, a writer, committed suicide, her father remarried to a woman she cannot accept and she has sought control of her life in anorexia. However, she has inherited her mother’s gift with words and is determined to complete the script. Tawny was born to act-flamboyant, daring, a presence who cannot be ignored and together they become wholly involved in the re-enactment.
Then a new girl, Bryony Hollingworth, joins their class and is immediately subjected to taunts about her name-and to add to the mix Cate sees her walking in the dead of night to the eerie and deserted Hollingworth Hall, home of the family of Jane Hollingworth, where a light then appears in an upstairs bedroom. Tawny, knowing nothing of this, invites Bryony to join her and Cate and so an uneasy friendship begins.
Little by little, Bryony begins to get closer to Tawny and, ironically, rehearsals on Cate’s script bind them together as Rose and Jane. Cate is increasingly excluded as the two begin to resemble more and more the characters they are playing and she is doubly terrified-firstly of losing her dearest friend and, secondly, that Bryony is using her family inheritance to bewitch Tawny.
This is a dark and tangled web, which becomes increasingly so as the story moves on. Lane writes dramatically and skilfully, building the terror and emphasising Cate’s problems with her mental health, to which her father and step-mother pay little attention. As the girls-including Tawny’s younger sister Robyn-are drawn into Bryony’s plan to be reunited with Rose, through Tawny-Cate realises she must act and save her friend and Robyn from Bryony/Jane’s clutches. The final scene on the moors where Rose and Jane were hanged is powerful and mesmerising.
The narrative surefootedly avoids the trap of sliding into a happy ending, but the conclusion is moving and has within it the seeds of hope for all the girls-even level-headed Tawny- who Bryony tried to bewitch and take away. Jennifer Lane is a writer to take note of.