In the novel’s closing lines – and not for the first time – Nor feels “the hair on the back of her neck” prickle. She knows someone’s watching her, probably with malign intent. Perhaps readers can expect a chilling sequel. Author’s Acknowledgements follow, and then two lists prefaced by “If you or a loved one is struggling with self-harm, please remember you’re not alone….” The first list names UK support organisations, the second suggests “Additional Resources” such as Mind and the Samaritans.
Leslye Walton’s Acknowledgements include her thanks to “all you brave and beautiful souls who trusted me with the stories of your struggles with self-harm,” though Nor’s adventures on the island of Anathema are surely a long, long way from anything readers might know first-hand. The isle is crowded with witches, black magic, extreme pain inflicted just for the hell of it, the laying-on of healing hands, raging wild fires, drownings and cracking human bones. There are numerous deaths, some moving, some of no more impact than those in a computer game. Driving everything is the ferocious treatment of a daughter by her mother.
That relationship will bring us back to the matter of self-harm, but first we need to go back to the roots of it all. The island of Anathema lies off the North-West Coast of the United States. Among its earlier settlers was Rona Blackburn, a formidable woman and a formidable witch. From her have descended eight Blackburn daughters, none so powerful as Rona, but each with a different gift (their “burden”), mostly used for good in the island’s community. The sixth generation daughter was Judd Blackburn (a healer), her daughter was Fern, and Fern’s daughter is our contemporary, Nor. Her burden is that she can hear the thoughts of animals and plants. Unusually for a Blackburn woman, Nor has further gifts, which she keeps quiet about. Fern is the mould-breaker; she pushed her magical powers to their limits and then beyond into black magic. Her pleasure is to inflict pain, even to kill; nothing else gives her such exquisite joy. There is a cost, though. At first she sheds her own blood to shed that of others – until, that is, she realises that she can conserve her own strength by drawing on on the blood of others. Nor is a convenient choice. So frequently does she abuse her daughter that Nor’s body is disfigured by the wounds. In the course of this, Nor discovers a sense of release, of pleasure almost, stemming from self-inflicted cuts. In her embarrassment, she keeps as low a profile as possible at school and around the island, covering her scarred wrists with knitted bands and mittens to hide her shame. She wants only to live quietly with Grandmother Judd.
There is some relief for Nor when her mother leaves the island to exercise her powers on the American mainland. But then Fern publishes a best-seller – The Price Guide to the Occult – in which she not only reveals spells of black magic, but offers to cast them – for a fee – for eager buyers. Soon she is a celebrity with thousands of followers, each sporting a writhing fern tattoo to proclaim their loyalty to their idol. Somehow, Nor knows her mother will soon be back on Anathema
For the reader, staying astride the wild and whirling plot is a rodeo ride, plunging and bucking among death, evil and blood – Walton herself says the plot was “a feral beast” at times. There are balancing elements. The island has become a kind of theme park for tourists with an appetite for the occult. Walton has some fun with that throughout the book. There’s a tentative YA romance (or even one-and-a-half romances) for Nor, and witty exchanges between her and best-friend Savvy provide light relief among the gore-stained adventures.
Nor needs every scrap of courage she has, but she also shows a kind of relish in taking on whatever makes those hairs prickle on the back of her neck. The novel may well work best for those who are similarly inclined – within the safety of a fiction.