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The Witch of Exmoor


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About the Author

MARGARET DRABBLE is the author of The Sea Lady, The Seven Sisters, The Peppered Moth, and The Needle's Eye, among other novels. For her contributions to contemporary English literature, she was made a Dame of the British Empire in 2008.


Frieda Haxby Palmer, writer, intellectual, and the witch of the title of this bristling social satire, is a splendid, classic British eccentric, a woman who is capable of serving her family a dish of proletarian "Bumperburgers," which contains no meat, just "gristle, fat, chicken scraps, and water from cow's heads." She does this to prove a favorite point to her smug, opinionated children (surgeon, lawyer, arts administrator), who are blundering through lives as apparently conventional as hers has been unusual. The point is that their slick, prosperous world is in fact moribund, so corrupt and monstrous that it is rotting on its feet. Not content with dinner-table dissent, Frieda sues Her Majesty's Government over her tax returns, shuns her children's company, abandons her expensive car in a traffic jam and moves into an isolated, near-derelict Victorian Gothic hotel on England's western coast. Drabble depicts the objects of Frieda's scorn in terms that are at once ingenious and disturbing. Animals are filthy, slaughter-house fodder, food has become diseased, living environments are toxic. Characters are haunted by their past, confused by their origins; Frieda's favorite grandson is deeply anguished over his mixed Indian-Guyanese heritage, her eldest son's child is a junkie. But such grimness never overwhelms Drabble's sly humor and urbane wit or her mischievous eye for revealing detail. When Frieda disappears without warning, the drama turns to mystery, and her children, as concerned about her will as about her fate, are left to unravel the puzzle of their mother's existence and their own. Swimming in the murk of post-Thatcher Britain and taking a stern but knowing view of the English bourgeoisie, this is postmodern family drama at its best. (Sept.)

Freda Haxby Palmer, author of the feminist classic The Matriarchy of War, was always more popular with her readers than with her own children. Her three offspring, now married and middle-aged, lead respectable lives, but Freda's behavior has gone from bad to worse. She lives like a hippie in a rundown seaside retreat in Exmoor. Her most recent book, a romance novel based on the life of Queen Christina, was universally panned. Lately, she has taken on the British tax code in the courts. But when Freda turns up missing, her estate suddenly seems more desirable. A movie producer has optioned her romance novel, and a sizable fortune may go to David D'Anger, M.P., her black son-in-law, to finance his utopian dream of creating a truly just society, an idea that makes the rest of the family cringe. This novel reexamines one of Drabble's favorite themes, the extent to which political idealism is a luxury of the privileged classes. This combination soap opera/novel of ideas, peppered with daunting Briticisms, is recommended for most Anglophile fiction collections. [Previewed in Prepub Alert, LJ 5/1/97.]‘Edward B. St. John, Loyola Law Sch. Lib., Los Angeles

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