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Written by Jessica GregsonAuthor Alerts:  Random House will alert you to new works by Jessica Gregson

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On Sale: December 06, 2011
Pages: 352 | ISBN: 978-1-56947-980-3
Published by : Soho Press Soho Press
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Synopsis|Excerpt

Synopsis

Is witchcraft or revenge to blame when men from a remote Hungarian village start dropping dead?

Teenage Sari's smart, inquisitive nature would be enough to make her an outcast in her remote Hungarian village; add to that her knowledge of healing herbs, and she's widely considered a witch.
 
When the men leave to fight World War I, however, everything changes. Without their oppressive and often abusive husbands and boyfriends, the women at last taste freedom and independence, and Sari makes friends. She and a number of other women in the village even begin relationships with injured Italian POWs housed nearby. Swept up in an intellectual and passionate love affair with a university professor, Sari's mind and body awaken for the first time in her life.
 
With the war's end, the men of the village return. Sari's freedom--and her newfound friendships--are imperiled. But just as Sari knows the herbs that will heal, she knows as well those that will kill. It takes several weeks for the arsenic, sprinkled her fiancé's food, to finish him off. The first poisoning leads to another, and then another. Based on a true story, this novel shows how a good person can be led to evil, and how a community can come together to conceal unspeakable crimes.




Excerpt

Prologue

She never answers, but still, I talk to her all the time. Listen, I tell her. I’ve made mistakes. When it first started, sometimes I would try to pretend that I was helpless in all of it, that I’d been buffeted by fate; that as surely as those eight women are twisting in the wind now, in my way, I’ve been twisting in the wind my whole life. It’s not true, though; it’s just a lie that I told myself when I wasn’t feeling strong enough to face up to what I am, and what I’ve done. In truth, I’ve made my choices, and my hand is strong in all of this. Without me, none of this would have even started.
 
I’m twenty-eight, but I look older, and that doesn’t even come close to how old I feel. That’s not so unusual where I come from. In the city, I’ve heard that women are cosseted and coddled, treated like elaborate ornaments or playthings. Here, we carry our parents and our husbands and our children on our backs; we’re the dumping ground for all of life’s shit. Judit taught me that early on, and nothing I’ve gone through since has gone any way towards disproving it. They used to wonder why I was still alive; in the villages, people regularly kill themselves over less than I’ve endured.

When I was small, maybe eight or nine, Katalin Remény, aged sixteen, drowned herself because she was pregnant without a husband. She was hauled out of the river – at a time when bodies in the river were far rarer than they have been recently – and at her funeral her body was paraded through the streets, surrounded by howling mourners, but of course she had to be buried outside the churchyard because of her sins, and later, Judit and my father went to pour boiling water over her grave, to stop her from stalking the village in death, as suicides are said to do.

Judit came to speak to me a few days after Katalin was buried, and I remember she was hissing and spitting with fury: she told me that what Katalin had done was pointless and meaningless, that having a baby without a husband was only a sin in the eyes of those people who want to control women, and that, in any case, if a woman ever found herself with a baby that she didn’t want, she could always come to Judit and Judit would take care of it – though, at that age, I only had a vague idea of what ‘taking care of it’ meant.

Like with most of Judit’s rages, it was born out of a desire to protect me, and it worked. Katalin took up residence in my mind, a symbol of the opposite of everything I was going to be; a mindless, sacrificial lamb, caring more about the opinions of a few stupid villagers than her own life. I knew that I would never give up my own life if there were any alternative left to me in the world, and as it’s happened, I could never be accused of failing to seek out as many alternatives as possible.

That’s at the root of it all, I explain to her: my survival instinct, my will to live. That’s behind all the choices I’ve made. I could have given myself up at any number of points, and I suppose it would have saved lives. But not my life, and not her life, and that’s all I’m looking out for. I’ve learnt that it’s too painful and dangerous to care about much else.

Is it odd that I feel like this, given the twenty-eight years I’ve had? Maybe I should have accepted the bitter slice of life I got as something easy to surrender. But once I got it between my teeth, I was never going to let it go without the most violent struggle. What’s good about life? Ask me that when you’re watching a summer moon, bloated and white, floating over the plain. Ask me that when you’re looking into my child’s face. Of course, there are terrible things too, and sometimes – often – they outweigh the good. But you can’t have beauty without a bit of terror.


1914

Chapter One

Sari is fourteen years old when they carry her father out, carry him through the village lanes, his face bare and blank to the wide sky, carry him through the summer wildflowers that bloom alongside the river, carry him to the cemetery. It is a public end for a private man, infused with the drama that makes village life bearable; a final chance to be the centre of attention, something that Jan Arany had never sought. Sari doesn’t cry, because that isn’t her way; instead, she wraps a cloak of silence around herself, and lets the other village women do the wailing for her. Her silence almost gives the impression of absence. It is misleading.

Her father had been a Wise Man, respected, a táltos, and they’d lived for all of Sari’s life on the outskirts of the village, in a wooden house with steps that creaked, the grass in front of it worn thin by the feet of villagers in search of cures, help or salvation. Her father had been a big man, tall, broad-shouldered, light-haired – unusual in that place – a wide face like the sun, Sari thinks: warm, but remote. The villagers had loved him and feared him in equal measure. They just fear Sari.

As long as she can remember, she’s been skirted by whispers wherever she goes. Her father had tried to explain it. ‘It’s because they loved your mother,’ he said, but that’s never made sense to Sari. She loves her mother too, a wraith-figure whom she’s never met, only heard about, and woven her image out of stories and imagination; a young woman – barely older than Sari now – who had left her family, smiling, to marry Jan Arany. Still smiling, she’d swollen with Sari inside her, and then split open at Sari’s birth, and died.

‘I didn’t want her to die,’ Sari would say to her father, after someone or other had hissed witch behind her back.

‘I know,’ he said, ‘But they just think it’s unlucky, that’s all.’

That’s not all, though, and Sari knows it, though she’s always appreciated her father’s kindness to pretend otherwise. Sari understands that she is odd, that there’s something in the way she holds herself, in the way she looks at people, in the things she says and the things she knows, that isn’t what the rest of the village considers right and proper. She envies the girls she sees walking through the village, arm in arm with easy familiarity, but she can’t see how to get from where she is to where they are, how to change her behaviour in order to be liked. The only concession that she makes these days is her silence. Keeping her mouth shut gives the villagers fewer new stories to tell about her, but as with most villages, many of them are all too happy to tell the same stories over and over again.

It happened the day her father died, too. It was morning, and Sari was at the door of the Mecs house in the noise-choked heart of the village, buying a bottle ofczerenznye from Dorthya Mecs. As she reached out her hand to take it, she heard the voices – distinct, clear, dominated by Orsolya Kiss’s high, nasal drawl. Hearing her name, Sari moved her eyes without turning her head, and saw Orsolya, one hefty buttock hoisted onto the edge of the Gersek porch, leaning and grinning, surrounded by three or four other women. Two, Sari saw, were Orsolya’s best friends, Jakova Gersek and Matild Nagy, flanking her like bodyguards; one of them she didn’t recognise, but the shape of her face recalled Orsolya’s, and Sari remembered hearing that Orsolya’s cousin from Város was visiting. Well-practiced at avoiding notice, Sari softened her body slightly, fitting herself easily into the swoops and shadows of the narrow, slanted lane.

‘She’s never quite been right,’ Orsolya was saying, the mock sorrow in her voice unable to hide the underlying glee at being the bearer of a good story. ‘A terrible trial for her father, who’s a good man. And her mother—’ Orsolya paused to raise her eyes piously to heaven, the other three following suit, ‘– Monika was a good woman. Her death was tragic, so young, but, forgive me, sometimes I thank God that she never had to live to see what her daughter is.’

‘What does she do?’ Orsolya’s cousin whispered, in the hushed, excited tones of the consummate gossip.

The exchange was wearyingly familiar to Sari, a ritual song of call and response. She realised she was frozen, one hand holding the bottle of alcohol, as she met the eyes of Dorthya, who raised her eyebrows and gave a slight sympathetic shrug. Sari withdrew her arm, but remained rooted to the spot, listening, still. Which one will it be, Orsolya? she asked silently. The one where I drive the dog mad because it won’t stop shitting in front of our house? The one where I put the curse on Éva Orczy’s baby because I think she looks at me oddly? The one about me having a birthmark in the shape of an inverted cross on my back? Or maybe something new that you’ve dreamt up? Come on, Orsolya, Sari challenged. Surprise me.

‘Well, I saw this one with my own eyes,’ Orsolya said, and Sari relaxed slightly. She’d heard this one, and it was almost comforting to hear it repeated; it had taken on the soothing quality of a fairy tale. ‘She must have been four or five,’ Orsolya continued comfortably. ‘It was Sunday, and we were in church. It was summer, maybe late July, or August, and you know what the flies are like then – anyway, there was a big old dongó buzzing around Sari, and she was swiping and swatting at it, like children do, but it wouldn’t leave her alone. So finally, she sat up straight, and just stared at it – this fly – and that was it. It fell onto the floor, dead.’

The breathless silence following Orsolya’s declaration cleverly conjured the dullplop of the fly dropping to the ground. In another life, Orsolya could have been a performer, but here, her repertoire is limited, and Sari knew this particular piece off by heart. It was that silence that she had been waiting for. Whatever she did, they were going to believe what they wanted to believe, and so she was allowed a little fun, surely? She paid Dorthya, her hands perfectly steady, and turned to face the group of women. Deliberately, she took a deep breath, pulled herself up as if the top of her head was anchored to the sky and, with a gesture loaded with intent, flicked her hair back and hit first Orsolya, then her cousin, then her vapid, giggling friends with the stare she knew had come to scare people. She watched, gratified, as the smug smiles slid from their faces (like shit off a shovel, she thought), then turned, hoisting the bottle in her arms, and walked home.

She’d only just arrived, and was peeling the potatoes for the midday meal when she heard it: a thick, heavy thump from upstairs (for a moment she thought instinctively of Orsolya’s fictitious fly hitting the ground), and she knew straight away what had happened. Her face didn’t change. First, she finished peeling the potatoes. Then, she got to her feet, shaking the water off her hands, wiping them on her skirt, before slowly, slowly climbing the stairs. At the top, she entered her father’s bedroom, and there he was, on the floor, slumped and crumpled like she’d known he would be. She moved over to him, knelt down beside him and smoothed her hand over his face, closing his eyes. Of course he was dead: there was something in the timbre of the sound he made when he fell that just couldn’t belong to something living.

For five minutes she was motionless, kneeling by her father, not weeping, not speaking, not praying (though later, she thought, she might tell people she prayed), just feeling her heart banging inside her chest, her blood thrumming at her wrists, soaking in the impossibility that she could still be living while her father was dead. She stayed there until she became conscious of the absence in the room, until she could feel that the corpse on the floor had ceased being her father and become a thing. It was all right for her to leave him then.
 

Sari is best known in Falucska for her unnerving silence and stillness, and at the funeral she embraces this image, gathering it around her like a comfortable old blanket. She seems unmoved as the priest speaks of her father, unaffected by the weeping of the women surrounding her. All the village is there, and all eyes are on Sari. While many genuinely mourn Jan’s death, there’s no doubt that Sari’s presence at the funeral is a supplementary attraction. If she were to do something even slightly shocking, like laughing during the eulogy, it would enliven the funeral enormously, and give the village something to talk about for days. It’s not outright malice in most people, Sari realises: it’s the crushing boredom of life in a small village becalmed in the middle of the plain. While they’d never admit it, there are some in the village who are grateful to Sari for shaking things up a little. If it weren’t for her, they’d be discussing crops and pregnancies and the weather all the damn time.

Sari can feel them watching, and resolves not to give them the satisfaction of behaving in the way that they expect. This is not my father, she says calmly to herself, and promptly sends her mind away – the ability to detach from any given situation is one she’s fostered for years. Only when the first clump of earth hits the coffin is she brought back to the present: she has a brief, horrifying image of her father, worm-ridden, covered in soil, and that’s it. She flinches as violently as if she’s been stung – and the villagers are on tenterhooks, placing internal bets about what she’s going to do: she’s going to throw herself into the grave; she’s going to start screaming; oh, she’ll attack the priest, for sure. But all she does is turn and walk away, back towards the clutter of houses; Father István continues his droning after only the briefest of pauses, and a great sense of anti-climax settles over the crowd.
 

A twitch of movement at the edge of the knot of people, and Ferenc Gazdag, nineteen and desperately earnest-looking, makes a move to follow Sari, but his mother’s hand on his shoulder stops him.

‘Leave her,’ she hisses. Márta Gazdag is the sister of Sari’s late mother, and although she has very little liking for Sari (because, honestly, how can you be fond of someone who is so odd?), there’s something in the straightness of Sari’s back, the pagan swatch of black hair, that sometimes reminds Márta of her sister. Her sister, whose grave is only a few feet away. The eyes are still on Sari, following her as she walks away, watching to see where she’s going, although they suspect her destination already. Sure enough, at the crossroads she heads left, instead of right; she climbs the steps leading to the midwife’s door and lets herself in.
 

‘Aunt Judit?’

Sari’s never been sure whether Aunt Judit really is her aunt. She’s always referred to her as such, but then so does the rest of the village, even the few people who are older than Judit herself. It’s the only thing that ties Judit to respectability; the adopted kinship is the only thing that stops small boys throwing stones at her windows when they pass by the house (and they still do, sometimes), and the kinship has been necessary to adopt, because the village needs her, no matter what they may feel about her. Judit’s the only midwife in town, and, more, the only person within several miles with any medical knowledge at all. You may be high and mighty enough to take your son to Város for his regular check-ups, or to have your teeth looked at there, but woe betide you when you’re up puking in the middle of the night, woe betide you if Aunt Judit isn’t on your side, cause that’s who you’ll be shouting for.

But Judit’s always been Sari’s second favourite person in the world, after her father. And now, she thinks, probably her favourite person altogether: not only has Judit never minded Sari’s oddness, but she seems actually to revel in it, perhaps because she’s no stranger to being an outsider herself. Judit fits everybody’s definition of a crone. Thin as a whip, white hair that she tries to tame in a bun but ends up rebelling and sticking out crazily from her head. Coal pits for eyes, a hooked nose, and a black hole of a mouth, missing all but a few teeth.

‘Be careful with your teeth,’ she always says to Sari. ‘You never know how much you’ll miss them.’

Sari can’t guess how old she is, perhaps seventy or even eighty, but Judit’s still so strong and able that it makes Sari want to revise her opinion downward. Judit says it’s a hard life that makes her look so ancient, but always follows that comment up with a cackle of such sublime enjoyment that Sari can’t tell if she’s being serious or not. Judit has the sort of face that inspires fear in children and, if they’re honest, in some adults too, and she seems to enjoy it; at any rate, she does not go out of her way to dispel any of the rumours about her that clog the lines of village gossip.

Now Judit comes striding out of her kitchen, glass in hand. ‘Sari – aren’t you supposed to be at the funeral?’

Sari grimaces, yanking her boots off. ‘It’s mostly over. I got sick of it, Judit, sick of the people and the words and the crying. It’s all wrong.’

‘I’m sorry I didn’t go,’ Judit says. She eases herself down onto the wooden floor so that she’s on eye level with Sari, who’s still tugging at her right boot. ‘You know István and I don’t see eye to eye. Maybe I should have been there, to keep you company.’

Sari shakes her head vehemently. ‘Don’t be stupid. It would have made you as hypocritical as the rest of them. Besides, I can look after myself.’ Her voice breaks on the last word and abruptly, she claps her hands over her face. Judit puts a twisted hand on her shoulder but doesn’t hug her, because that would seem contrived. Sari’s shuddering violently, but Judit doubts that she’s crying. In the fourteen years she’s known the girl, she’s never seen her cry, and she doubts that this’ll be the first time. She thinks there’s probably something wrong with the child’s eyes that makes weeping impossible.

In time, Sari stops shaking and takes down her hands; for a moment she sits there in the unnatural stillness that makes people fear and distrust her, before she brushes a hand roughly across her face. ‘Sorry,’ she says stiffly.

‘It’s fine,’ Judit replies. ‘Wait.’ She goes into her kitchen and comes out with a small glass full of clear liquid, which she hands to Sari. ‘Drink this,’ she says. ‘It’ll do you good.’

Sari gulps it down in a couple of mouthfuls, making a face. ‘God, Judit, it’s worse than the stuff you made last year. This is why my father always bought it from the Mecs, not from you.’

Judit shrugs. ‘It’s still good for you.’

Footsteps crunch on the road outside Judit’s window. ‘There, the funeral’s over,’ Sari says. Her voice is deliberately light, but Judit picks up her meaning.

‘And so what’s going to happen to you now?’

Because that’s the question, really. The house where Sari grew up with her father – it’s hers now, and all Sari wants is to go back there, move through the rooms that held her father’s presence. But it’s not done; girls don’t live alone, nor do women, unless they’re widows, and while Sari’s used to telling herself she doesn’t care what the village thinks, she hardly wants to make herself more of an outcast than she is already. And then . . .

‘Well, there’s Ferenc,’ Sari says.
 
‘Yes. Ferenc,’ Judit says slowly. ‘He seems like a good boy.’

‘He is,’ Sari replies. She feels a general, unlocated fondness for her probable future husband. The idea of marriage still repels her slightly, but she understands her father’s thinking now. These past couple of days she’s had a hard, cold nugget of fear lodged somewhere between her lungs, and oddly, it’s been the thought of Ferenc that has made her feel slightly better. At least there’s one person who has to be nice to her, who has to take care of her (although, she adds swiftly, she can take care of herself).

‘It seems like the obvious next step—’ Judit starts, but Sari shakes her head violently.

‘No, not yet. Not until I’m eighteen. I promised. I can look after myself until then.’

‘All right, all right!’ Judit raises her hands in surrender. ‘But at least tell me how you intend to provide for yourself until then?’

Sari flushes. It’s not that she’s shy, but she is proud, and supremely unused to having to ask for things and so it’s hard to get the words out, even though she suspects that Judit knows what she’s going to say.

‘I was thinking,’ she says slowly, ‘I was thinking that maybe I could work with you. I could help you, and start learning about what you do. If you’ll let me.’


Chapter Two

Ferenc still feels hot from where Sari’s eyes landed on him at the funeral. The feeling is almost painful, and unbearably exciting. He is sad about Jan’s death – his putative uncle, after all – but now he is wracked by a wild hope about what this will mean for him, whether he’ll have a chance of Sari sooner rather than later.

Until six months ago, he had barely thought of her, and on the rare occasions that he did, it was with the same mixture of pity and derision that most of the village men did. He had torn through his adolescence with his mind filled with images of blondes, luscious curves, succulent pink and cream skin, and if someone had told him that a scrawny black-haired child would sneak into his subconscious like Sari has, he would have laughed.

And then . . .

He remembers the exact moment that it happened. Six months ago, spring: mosquitoes rising off the river like fog; flowers bursting out of the trees and the ground; heat hanging like a hint of smoke on the midday air. He’d gone with his father to see Jan Arany – for what? For some minor misfortune or mishap, probably – and they’d been sitting at the old, lined kitchen table, Jan dispensing advice as best he could.

Ferenc had been only vaguely aware of Sari’s busy, mercurial presence behind Jan, until Jan had asked her for something and she turned around, raised her head and her eyes – those eyes! – seemed to physically hit Ferenc across the table. He couldn’t have described the rest of her face if he’d tried; it melted into the background compared with those eyes. Pale, icy blue, surrounded by thick dark lashes, but it wasn’t the beauty of the eyes that was astonishing; it was their knowing, searching, piercing quality. They weren’t the eyes of a fourteen-year-old, and Ferenc felt laid bare, as if he’d never been seen before.

And that was it, that glance. She climbed into his head through that glance, and there she stayed, sometimes lurking uncomfortably just below his daily thoughts, and sometimes breaking the surface – mainly, predictably enough, when he was masturbating. He used to do it to the memory of a twenty-year-old Austrian blonde he’d seen bathing at Lake Balaton, but now his fantasies were invaded by Sari. The Austrian beauty, who used to gaze at him adoringly in his ardent dreams now stared at him with Sari’s severe glare, or, at the crucial moment, her face would split apart and be replaced with Sari’s visage. It was troubling, and unsettling. Ferenc did everything he could to rid himself of this dream-Sari. After a humiliating muttered conversation with Father István he tried fasting, and prayer, and cold baths, but to no avail. He was not an intellectually sophisticated man, but the irony of the situation did not escape him – the one person who could have rid him of the dreams was the one person who must not know about them, on account of their subject being his daughter.

But in the end, it was Jan who settled the matter. Ferenc would like to believe that it was just one of life’s odd but fortuitous coincidences, but fundamentally he knows that Jan didn’t deal in coincidence, particularly where his daughter was concerned. Six months ago, Ferenc was blinded by Sari’s eyes; five months ago his father asked him to take something over to Jan’s. Ferenc agreed, reluctant because he had come to dread seeing Sari, avoidance being the only tactic that had even the slightest effect on the dreams.

As it happened, either by luck or judgement, she wasn’t there.

‘She’s at Judit Fekete’s,’ Jan explained, in response to the question Ferenc refused to ask. ‘Sit down,’ Jan added, gesturing to the empty chair opposite him, and as Ferenc handed over the couple of coins his father owed Jan, Jan opened a bottle of wine, sloshing a few inches of thick, blood-red liquid into a glass, pushing it towards Ferenc. ‘Have a drink.’

Uncertainly, Ferenc sat and took the wine. To his surprise, it was good – not up to the standard that Ferenc was used to at home, of course, but still full-bodied and tasty. He realised two things then: that Jan knew his wine; and that he was deliberately setting out to please or impress. Both these realisations startled him. Jan was not someone who tended to try to impress, doing so naturally or not at all. Ferenc sipped silently at his wine, unnerved.

‘So,’ Jan said suddenly. Ferenc waited for the rest of the sentence, and when it didn’t come:

‘So,’ he responded helpfully.

‘My daughter,’ Jan said.

Oh. Ferenc felt every inch of his body tensing, as if Jan was staring into the heart of his most shameful masturbatory fantasies. He cleared his throat awkwardly, staring at the table.

‘You like her,’ Jan continued.

Ferenc gulped. ‘Well, yes,’ he stammered.

Jan smiled. ‘That’s good.’

Further disquieted, Ferenc sat silent. He felt like a dog being teased by a cat, large and lumbering with Jan swiping at this foot and then that foot, turning him around and about.

‘Have you given any thought to marriage?’ Jan asked finally.

So that was it. Part of Ferenc wanted to laugh: it was absurd, surely, the idea that he could marry Sari? Sex was one thing, yes, and he couldn’t deny that he wanted that, but marriage? Ferenc’s no grof, but he’s no peasant, either; his father’s family had worked their way up to a position of wealth and importance by herding for the local aristocracy over the past couple of hundred years, and the land that they own, the places they go, the people and things they know – they might as well inhabit a different world from the rest of the village.

‘I haven’t thought about it,’ Ferenc replied.

He had thought about it, though; he could hardly have reached the age of eighteen without the idea of marriage having occurred to him. It had always been assumed that he would never marry anyone from the village, that he’d have to look elsewhere for someone who would be his equal, and it was with a shock of something that could have been trepidation, as much as excitement, that he realised that if he were to marry anyone from Falucska, Sari, whose mother was his aunt, would seem to be the leading candidate.

‘I was hoping that you might consider my daughter.’

A memory floated to the surface of Ferenc’s thoughts. He’d met a girl a few years back, in Budapest, while on holiday with his parents. She’d been small and mousy, with glossy brown hair and a frightened expression, but his parents had introduced them with great joviality; it had obviously been important and desirable that they get on with one another. He had tried, but every story he had told her, of swimming in the river in the village, of climbing trees and catching frogs and romping with dogs had caused her to shrink back with barely disguised fear and revulsion. Afterwards, he had spoken of her to his parents in disparaging tones, only to be rebuked by his father, who had told him that she was from a good family, well brought up, the sort of girl likely to grow into a marriageable woman. It was the first clue Ferenc had ever had of how much things were likely to change once he was neatly married off to some carefully socialised woman. Sari, he thought, she wouldn’t be like that at all.

‘I think—’ Ferenc began, utterly unsure of what he was thinking, but Jan held up a hand to halt him.

‘I don’t expect you to decide right away, of course. The two of you hardly know each other. But I’m not well.’ Jan’s voice became heavy. ‘Sari doesn’t know – or maybe she does; it’s hard to tell what she does and doesn’t know – but I’m not going to be around much longer. I know what the village thinks of Sari, and I’m worried about what will happen to her after I’m dead, who will protect her. I know you’re a good boy, Ferenc, and I’m sure you’ll be a good man. I’ve seen the way you look at Sari, and with your background, you’re less superstitious than the rest of the people here – you can see what little truth there is behind the things that people say about my daughter. Also, her mother was from your family, so I feel your family would be more likely to accept her.’

Ferenc nodded. This was all very strange, but it was possible, perhaps, wasn’t it?

‘Her age is an issue, of course,’ Jan went on. ‘She’s only fourteen – too young for marriage. You know, her mother – your aunt – she was married to me at just under sixteen, and it was too young. She was happy, I think, but certainly not ready to be a mother. I have my suspicions that it may have had something to do with her death – her age, I mean. Aside from that, though, Sari is different. She’s not some feather-headed little girl who wants nothing more than to be a wife and a mother. She’s clever, and outspoken, and difficult. She needs to learn to trust you, and she needs to become her own person before she becomes your wife. I’m talking to you about this now because of the state of my health, but the last thing I want is for her to marry now. I would want you to wait until she’s eighteen.’

Four years? That gave Ferenc pause. Jan seemed to expect him to decide, if not immediately, then soon, but how was he supposed to know now what Sari was going to be like in four years? She could grow ugly in that time; he’d seen it happen. But Jan was looking at him with such implacable expectation of agreement that there seemed nothing else for it.

‘That sounds – very sensible,’ he replied at last. Jan smiled slightly, knowingly.

‘I have talked to Sari about this,’ Jan said, ‘and I must tell you she’s not overly keen on the idea. But that’s to do with the idea of marriage, rather than with you, and she’s agreed in principle.’ He smiled more broadly. ‘She did grudgingly admit that you seem nice.’

‘Well. Good.’ It was a start, after all.

‘Yes. I should talk to your family about this, obviously, but I wanted to mention it to you first. You don’t have to decide to anything straight away, but come back tomorrow, and you can start getting to know Sari. Make sure you’re making an informed decision.’ Jan heaved himself out of his chair, and gave Ferenc a clumsy, yet awkwardly affectionate clap on the shoulder – under the force of which Ferenc swayed slightly. ‘You’re a good boy,’ he said, in a tone of dismissal, which Ferenc took as the hint to leave that it was.

So it began.


From the Hardcover edition.
Praise

Praise

"Like Tracy Chevalier in Girl with the Pearl Earring, Gregson excels at developing strong, complex female voices; a swift plot; and a story that will hold readers from beginning to end."—Booklist

“Unforgettable.”—Historical Novels Review

“It’s a testament to Gregson’s skill that she lures readers on board and makes us believe—even cheer on—the grisly twists. She might get away with it because she’s so careful with her pacing and character development. She doesn’t race straight to the guts; she instead gives us enough of village life to hook us, make us believe, make us care about Sari’s strangeness, and the village’s general sicknesses and plucky misery, before any angels are made. Furthermore, Gregson possesses an enviable talent for delivering a full character in just a few lines…. her prose hangs together well overall and demonstrates an elegant ability to shift perspective, an acuity with handling the passage of time, and a touch for simple, transformative moments of beauty.” —Fiction Writer's Review

“Gregson has created in Sari so curious a character that the novel, based on a true story, springs vividly alive.” Grade: B+ —Clevland Plain Dealer

"Basing her novel on a true story, Gregson draws the reader into Sari’s conflicted world…. Gregson’s cautionary tale is all the more chilling for its basis in reality.” —Curled Up With a Good Book


From the Hardcover edition.

  • The Angel Makers by Jessica Gregson
  • December 26, 2012
  • Fiction - Literary
  • Soho Press
  • $14.00
  • 9781616951795

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