The Witch of Exmoor

Margaret Drabble, Author
Margaret Drabble, Author Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (HMH) $23 (288p) ISBN 978-0-15-100363-1
Reviewed on: 09/01/1997
Release date: 09/01/1997
Paperback - 264 pages - 978-0-15-600604-0
Hardcover - 432 pages - 978-0-7089-8954-8
Analog Audio Cassette - 978-0-7531-0150-6
Paperback - 281 pages - 978-0-670-87276-3
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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.)
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