Saturday 21 September 2019

Classic feel to Kilkenny witch trial saga

Fiction: Her Kind

Niamh Boyce

Penguin Ireland, €15.00

Hilary White

Church persecution has a long and horrid history, in case you didn't know. In this masterful second novel (after 2013's The Herbalist) from Kilkenny's Niamh Boyce, we find ourselves in the 14th Century beholding a grubby-fingered Bishop preying on the innocent for material gain.

As Boyce depicts it, there is methodology here, as if assassinating the character of someone and branding them a heretic is a fine way to rub out uncooperative types while pawing their assets.

Her Kind sets itself in a rarely visited era in Irish history, one where wolves roam the land, marriages are business contracts and feasts are held in great fire-lit halls.

Real names from the infamous Kilkenny witch trials of 1324 are rustled into life with astonishing vigour by Boyce and her tireless historical research.

Petronelle and her mute daughter Basilia arrive at the door of Dame Alice Kytler one night seeking refuge and employment.

Kytler, of Flemish stock and one of the wealthier families in the region, takes her in on account of a childhood friendship with the young mother, despite her being of lowly native Irish blood.

As the ins and outs of life in the household emerge - the colourful servants, the chores, the status optics, the light-footed nocturnal deceits - the pair find their feet with varying results.

Meanwhile, vindictive and lethally puritanical local Bishop Ledrede has had enough of watching a powerful woman like Alice march through the city and decides she should be dealt with.

There is something bizarrely accomplished about how Boyce delicately unfolds this atmospheric, magical thriller with pace and juice, while also making sure that the sentiments (vilification of women, policing of female biology, etc) echo through time.

In doing so, Her Kind feels like a reliable classic you'd find in the type of local library Boyce worked in, not the work of a second time novelist.

Sunday Independent

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