Susan Fletcher’s novel of the Jacobite rebellion makes Clare Clark look at the world afresh

With Eve Green, which won the Whitbread first novel prize, and the subsequent Oystercatchers, Susan Fletcher has built a reputation for her complex female narrators and for the luminous poetry of her prose. With Corrag she steps 300 years into the past, but these twin trademarks are as much in evidence as ever.

The novel takes as its starting point the massacre of Glencoe when, on a winter’s dawn in 1692, William III’s redcoats brutally slaughtered 32 of the MacDonald clan, including women and children. Many more, forced to flee, died of exposure in the mountains. The MacDonalds’ crime was their loyalty to the exiled Catholic James II; although they had signed an oath to King William, they had done so six days too late.

Fletcher comes at her story obliquely, through the eyes of the eponymous Corrag, whose curious name is an amalgamation of her mother’s – Cora – and the epithet most frequently thrown at her, hag. As Corrag remarks dryly, “That was her way. Her humour.” While Corrag is still a girl her mother is burned as a witch, and Corrag is condemned to a life of wandering. When she finally reaches Glencoe she finds a place – and a people – to whom, almost against her will, she becomes deeply attached. When the soldiers come, she does what she can to save them.

As the novel opens, the massacre is over and Corrag imprisoned in a stinking prison in Inverary, condemned to die by burning. The age of witch-hunts may be almost over but the fear of the outsider is as strong as ever. While she waits, Charles Leslie, an Irish Jacobite, comes to her cell, eager for proof that might implicate the king in the massacre and assist in James’s restoration to the English throne. Corrag agrees to talk to him, but only if he will hear her story from the beginning.

It is a story worth hearing. Like Fletcher’s previous heroines, Corrag is steeped in the landscapes that surround her and her observations are marked by the same lyricism as those of her predecessors. From the outset Leslie describes her as having “an eye which sees the smaller parts of life”. Distrustful, he regards this as “bewitchment” and determines to resist it. The reader has no such scruples. Corrag’s descriptions combine the oblique originality of a child with the precision and control of a poet. The Scottish pools are “so still that there was a second sky in them”; when moths catch in the cobwebs in Corrag’s hair, she says “my hair was wings and whiteness”. The novel is crowded with images such as these, stunning in their freshness and simplicity. There are moments when the sheer beauty of the prose takes one’s breath away.

Corrag herself is a consummately drawn character, a half-feral scrap of a thing with tangled hair and a great tenderness for all living creatures. Throughout all the hardships of her life she never loses her sense of wonder. She shows us that the world is magical, not because she is a witch but because there is magic in “the simple daily moments that we stop seeing”. When we look at the world through Corrag’s eyes we are offered a different reality in which what matters is not the supernatural secret of second sight but “what powers are in us – in all of us. What we already know, if we choose to spend some time with ourselves.”

For all this, the novel is too long. More than once Corrag checks herself – “But I race ahead” – and one finds oneself impatiently wishing that she would. Leslie never quite comes to life; the letters to his wife that punctuate Corrag’s story lack sparkle and add little to the narrative. At times, also, the stylised prose jars. For Corrag, words are as important as places and, throughout the novel, several words, “witch” among them, are weighted with particular significance. These are pressed into the narrative again and again, the repetition hypnotic and staccato, like a spell. When this works, the effect is powerful, but there is too much of it, and to too little purpose: “They were dark and wet days. When I think on them I think sad, and dark, and wet.” Some judicious editing would have served Fletcher well.

Corrag is not perfect. It is, however, a novel with moments of such extraordinary beauty and quiet power that it is impossible, having read it, not to look at the world anew. That in itself is a masterful achievement.

Clare Clark’s latest novel is Savage Lands (Harvill Secker). © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds