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Reviewed by Sarah Gonnet
Malkin is a small stapled pamphlet which elegantly recites the brutal facts of a real witch trial. Unlike The Crucible the focus is not on Salem but on Pendle. Location is very important to the book as the scenery becomes an extra character, while the actual characters have voices determined by their Lancastrian accents. As a result, everything in the pamphlet is framed by place as well as the time period (the early 1600s, a good eighty years before the Salem witch trials).
Every poem has a distinct voice. Many of the poems are titled after their narrator or the character the poem deals with: “Anne Redferne”, “Alice Nutter” etc. There is also frequently a relation or alias mentioned to help the reader piece together the story. For example Elizabeth Sowferns is listed as “alias Demdike”.
Because of this, the collection becomes a collection of inter-related opinions on the same events. In some places the voices form a chorus and there is little to differentiate one character from another. Alongside this, there is the common accent and the way that they mostly express themselves through iambic pentameter. This seems to be an intentional technique from Ralphs as she is telling the story of a community rather than one particular voice. The way this is done reminds me of the collective boys in The Virgin Suicides (the story even has a similarly grim outlook told through a painfully beautiful lens).
The words in the book are accompanied by Emma Wright’s gentle illustrations. These chiselled pictures mark the period and emphasise the environment of the characters. The images provide useful insights into key events in several of the poems.
Overall this pamphlet is a curious, engaging treatment of a bitter subject buried by time and the obscurity of women’s history. Everything the pamphlet stirs up has relevant messages to modern feminism and even topics such as the relevance of capital punishment and how in some countries it is ongoing today. Also poignant are the themes of manipulation of facts through words which is of course an eternal theme.
Sarah Gonnet is a Reviewer in Residence at Inpress Books.
Reviewers in Residence is a Cuckoo Young Writers programme, which allows young critics to develop an in-depth relationship with a venue or art form, and take part in exclusively tailored writing masterclasses.