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Weird Sister

by Kate Pullinger

Unlike trashy films and television shows, which may at least offer inadvertent humour or cautionary insight into plastic surgery, escapist fiction is often dull. The novels of Harold Robbins, Judith Krantz, or Jackie Collins make for laborious reading, and even gratuitous scenes of mobsters pleasuring bosomy CEOs in office elevators cannot wholly redeem them. It must be said: language, character, plot, and pacing actually do contribute to entertainment value. So whither quality trash fiction?

Kate Pullinger’s latest novel, Weird Sister, fulfills most of the requirements. The Canadian-born London-based writer has experimented with genre fiction in previous novels, and here plays with the modern gothic. Set in the ancient village of Warboys, in England’s damply atmospheric fen region, the tale unravels in segments narrated by multiple voices. It traces the gradual destruction of a local family, the deliciously named Throckmortons. Trouble begins when a ravishing American tourist named Agnes Samuel appears suddenly at the village pub and promptly wins a marriage proposal from a Throckmorton brother, who whisks her off to bond with his extended family at their estate. The Throckmortons each succumb to Agnes’s charms, and one by one are ruined in creatively malevolent ways.

Coincidence? We think not, since the novel is prefaced by a historical document concerning the trial of one Agnes Samuel, convicted for tormenting wealthy Throckmorton ancestors, and hanged as one of the “Witches of Warboys” back in 1593.

The novel features gothic staples: an apparently undead avenging beauty, and a fractured, death-haunted family living in a ruined mansion. In another book, this might suggest a subtext exploring dysfunctional families, British class warfare, and feminist retribution. Not this one: Pullinger is out to entertain, and keeps literary concerns to the rear. Instead, her propulsive narrative stops only to admire Agnes’s indefatigable sexual seduction of Throckmorton men, and her impressive designer wardrobe. (“She was wearing a hat and scarf and beautifully cut raincoat. It was made of navy blue rubberized cotton and it must have cost a lot of money.”) Pullinger combines such socially unredeeming subject matter with a witty, nasty story. Weird Sister is not great literature, but it is superior entertainment.