Two sisters and a witch, Rebekah Palmer

The Word Burners
Beryl Fletcher,
Daphne Brasell Associates, Wellington, 1991, $19.95

Finding Out
Elspeth Sandys,
Vintage New Zealand, Auckland, 1991, $24.95

The night-witch is invoked early in The Word Burners. The main character, Julia, tells her children of a lonely witch who lived in a world where there was no night. Then a night-witch arrives. The day-witch is initially pleased but soon realises her sister is wicked. Later we discover that the night-witch enters men’s bodies and eats off their penises while they sleep.

This book is about two sisters also, Julia and Isobel. Julia associates Isobel, who first told her the witch stories, very strongly with the night-witch. The two characters are skilfully drawn in this first novel. Isabel is a lesbian feminist and has the power to render men impotent. Julia, a women’s studies lecturer, admits she is afraid of Isabel. She is afraid of the language she uses, and the power it offers. ‘I fear certain words that she speaks, like “choosing” and “responsibility” and “desire”‘.

Words are a dominant theme throughout. The way different characters use them exposes both the power and fickleness of the medium. The essay on ‘Talking Cunts’ which subjects language to a feminist critique, finally convinces Julia that her search for certainty and truth in this way is futile. The knowledge is too much and readers observe the gradual decline of Julia with a sadness and sense of inevitability. The words Beryl Fletcher uses are well chosen and often evocative.

An explanation of what happens to Julia lies in her own lecture on Janet Frame’s book Scented Gardens for the Blind. This explores the relationship between the denial of female experience and a character’s loss of speech. ‘Frame’s silent character is a young woman under the power of her mother who fears that if her daughter speaks she will tell the truth about the horror of the lives of women’. Julia gradually falls into this silence herself. In her lecture on Frame’s book she offers an explanation of her own actions. ‘This was an example of the consequences of erasure, the internalization of the idea that the only good woman is a silent woman. The character is not mad, she has merely taken the ideology to its logical conclusion’.

Directly confronting feminist theory as an academic, Julia has to face the contradictions in her own life. In the end the night-witch triumphs and Julia is overwhelmed. In taking ideology to this particular conclusion The Word Burners provokes readers to explore their own relationship with the book’s two main themes ‑ language and feminism.

Finding Out is a much simpler book, yet enjoyable. Set in a small Otago town in the 1950s the story revolves around the arrival of a young teacher into the close community. The focus is diluted by the number of characters, but the familiar mix of adult-child in the two teenage girls of the story is convincing. Some other characters lack the same refinement. The title signals the climactic event of the book and could also refer to many other smaller discoveries made on the way. The plot is straightforward and executed well, with the shifts in consciousness confidently carried out.


Rebekah Palmer is a Nelson journalist.


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