The Afflicted Girls
by Suzy Witten
My rating: 2 of 5 stars
The Afflicted Girls / 978-0-615-32313-8
It is my belief that any historical novel must be subjected to two questions in a review - first, is the material historically accurate, and second, is the material pleasant and engaging to read.
In answer to the first question, as an avid student of the Salem witch trials, I can say that "The Afflicted Girls" is the least historically-accurate Salem artifact I have encountered. Much of the novel feels like a very loose re-write of Arthur Miller's "The Crucible" - popular antagonist Abigail Williams is again given an age upgrade from her historical 11 years of age to a sexually tantalizing 16 years of age so that she can feel up men, rape young boys, and have masturbatory fantasies about her uncle Parris. Major societal details have been changed - far too many of the characters are literate as a plot-device, and pretty much all of the Puritan girls running around Salem are sexually active and without a single thought to accidental pregnancy (some brief mention is made of birth control herbs).
As for the trials, the actual details of the trials have been totally rewritten. The order in which the accused were arrested, tried, and executed is arbitrarily changed. One of the accusing girls - protagonist Mercy Lewis - never actually testifies in court, and her role as accuser, and then accused, and then accuser again is completely rewritten. Several people who were either executed or left in prison until finally bonded out at the end of the trials have now been rescued in a completely narrative-breaking adventure jail-break sequence. This isn't even to mention that the entire novel only covers the events up to and including the first, initial set of hangings - barely a fraction of the Salem story. Indeed, so much has been removed, changed, or omitted, that I do not understand why the author didn't just use different names and make this completely fictional, instead of marketing this as a Salem novel.
So, now that we've established that teachers won't be handing out copies of "The Afflicted Girls" in history class, the next question is, is it a good story? The answer, for me at least, is 'no' - too much of the narrative is sensationalized and lurid for me to have derived enjoyment out of it. Protagonist Mercy Lewis is a textbook example of a "Mary Sue" character - she's an orphan who taught herself to read, has the unique talent of being able to completely read and commit to memory any sheet of paper just by glancing at it, and can recognize and quote back Shakespeare at the drop of a hat (and she does this a lot). All this, and she's survived years of childhood trauma being raped repeatedly by her master George Burroughs - a minister who not only raped her repeatedly, but did so whilst reciting a Black Mass in Latin.
Somewhat frustratingly, Mercy has the distressing talent of being raped by almost every person she meets - to paraphrase Ben "Yahtzee" Croshaw, if you left her alone in a waiting room for an hour, she'd find a way to get raped by a chair. What is more disturbing is that these scenes are always presented from the attackers' points of view, as something exciting and erotic for the reader, rather than from the victim's point of view as something horrible and traumatizing. Add on the fact that Mercy has a bad habit of picking herself up afterward as if nothing happened, and in one case excusing and falling in love with her attacker, and you have a recipe for very unpleasant reading material.
The violence isn't just limited to Mercy Lewis - this 450+ page novel feels less like a vehicle for telling the story of the Salem trials and more like a dark erotic novel. There isn't a single major male character in this novel who isn't a rapist - Rev. Parris purchased Tituba specifically for gratification and sold off their children for pocket-money; Thomas and Joseph Putnam both have extremely brutal scenes with Mercy, and Joseph (the main love interest of the story) frequently and deliberately hurts his girls in order to humiliate them; the doctor who attends the afflicted girls openly goes about raping them with their mothers in the same room (and also has the unique ability of being able to detect an "intact" hymen by *smell*, a detail that was less lurid and more ludicrous); and I could go on and on.
Almost every chapter contains a sexual interlude, most of them violent, cruel, humiliating, and uncomfortably detailed and varied - pretty much every possible variation of the sex act is on display here. Abigail Williams, being the antagonist, doesn't get raped by anyone (although she basically outright asks one man to do so and is offended when he refuses), but she does drug a boy and force herself onto him.
Apart from anything else, this novel is written very poorly and the pacing is frustratingly slow and tiresome. For a novel concerning the Salem trials, it is worthy of note that the first accusation doesn't occur until the mid-point of the novel - that's over 200 pages of backstory and rape before the Salem story even starts. The author frequently breaks off mid-narrative to give parenthetical backstory, often about things the reader doesn't care about. For instance, if Abigail walks into her uncle's study and smells the faint whiff of tobacco, the author will then break off a full page to explain, in parenthesis, how Parris got the tobacco, when he last smoked it, how his wife feels about that particular habit, and how she usually aired the room better, but somehow forgot to do so today, so that was why Abigail was able to smell it upon her arrival. This sort of narrative break happens frequently, and the book is poorer for it. I feel that with a talented editor to excise these parenthetical intrusions, the book would be shorter, the story would be tighter, and the whole thing would be more worth reading - assuming the lack of historical accuracy and the high incidence of sexual violence didn't put you off.
NOTE: This review is based on a free Advance Review Copy of this book provided through the author.
~ Ana Mardoll
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