Lina’s life was always going to be difficult – through no fault of her own. She was born a woman and she was born a witch …
The village of Elbasa is situated on the Northern Plateau at the foot of the Black Mountains in a locale known as the Land of Death. Here, wizards, assisted by their mutes – young boys with their tongues cut out – enforce the Lore with fearsome rigor, and kings amass riches from the collection of the Blood Tax. The threat of vendetta hangs over the inhabitants like a pall of obliteration; it may strike at any time and worm its slow, deadly way through a whole village, leaving a trail of tombstones and poverty in its wake. It is into this harshest of landscapes and community that the pretentious poet Hammel wends his way to be rid of ‘the endless jostling for status among the petty literati’ of the southern city and to recover his health after an affair. On the first day he blunders into the domicile of Damek, one of the hapless inhabitants of Elbasa. When he is forced to spend the night there and sees an apparition of Lina – the deceased love of the crazed and broken-hearted Damek, it is Anna, Hammel’s housekeeper and Lina’s childhood milk-sister, who narrates to him the tragic story of their lives.
Justice is the leitmotif that sits at the heart of Alison Croggon’s new gothic fantasy novel, heavily inspired by Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights (closely paralleling it’s plot). Set in a barbarous patriarchal society where women are regarded as little more than possessions, and witches are murdered at birth, the reader is positioned to be continually affronted by the oppression, violation and dismissal of the womenfolk in the story. In a poignant moment of self-reflection, Anna, the narrator, acknowledges her anger about the injustices meted out to Lina because of her sex: ‘Lina’s only crime was to be born a woman, with powers and instincts that were thought proper to belong only to a man … [w]hy should any of us be deemed monstrous for heeding the simple bidding of our hearts?’
Croggon’s adroit slant on psychology is one of the story’s strengths. Lina, confiding to Anna, laments the way the two men in her life have manifested their love for her: ‘…both of them betray me … [they] destroy me …Do you think they just love a phantom, whatever they saw when they looked at me, and forgot to love me? I wonder that, Anna, and it makes me feel so lonely …’
The characters in Black Spring are predominantly brought to the page by Anna in her journal-like narration to Hammel. The book includes one small section devoted to Lina’s diary. Damek’s character, constructed largely by Anna and Lina, with dialogue scattered sparely throughout the text, comes across in the book as mysterious and ghosted.
Black Spring is a compelling read, dark, tragic and embedded with ideology that will provoke a response in its target audience. Haunting, arresting and well-crafted; it is easy to see Croggon is a poet.
Walker books 2012
(A version of this review appears in Magpies Vol 27, Issue 5, November 2012)