By Lorraine Berry Star Tribune (Minneapolis)
Laurie Lico Albanese’s “Hester” opens as Isobel Gamble arrives in the port of Salem in the early 1820s, having left Scotland. Isobel has a gift for colors which she uses in embroidery and sewing, but she has hidden the true extent of her talent: a form of synesthesia which allows her to feel the colors in spoken and written language which make her sewing an enchantment for others.
As a young child, his synesthesia shines. “I then lived in a world of magic and color – my mother’s voice a sapphire stream studded with emeralds, my father is a toffee. In the summer I ran barefoot through the valleys with my cousins and my parents and I saw their voices rise in vibrant swirls of yellow and gold, the wind was fierce pink at times and the sound of the waterfall on the rocks shone silver.
But this sense of the world is disturbed when, by mentioning to her mother that the letters have colors, her mother castigates and hits her. Women who have expressed these kinds of thoughts have been called “crazy” or “witches.” Isobel’s mother is afraid that such a fate will befall her, and so Isobel learns to hide her own perceptions.
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As “Hester” unfolds in Albanese’s vivid and emotionally charged romance, Isobel reveals the story of her female ancestor, another Isobel, who was caught in one of the last gasps of European witch panic. . By the end of the 17th century, the male intellectual obsession with women’s bodies as a conduit for Satan’s powers had morphed into other forms of misogyny across Europe. But Salem, Mass., would see a final eruption in 1692 that resulted in the deaths of 25 villagers, 19 of whom were hanged.
In that same Salem, Isobel meets Nat Hathorne, a young man burdened with inherited guilt in a town where the descendants of victims and perpetrators are neighbors. The witch trials aren’t the only legacy Salem has inherited; its role in the Atlantic Trade Triangle means that local traders continue to profit from slavery and Salem’s black residents live in insecurity. The townspeople’s sense of respectability and rectitude hides a multitude of sins.
Isobel makes a living embroidering haberdashery and clothing for Salem’s elite. In Nat, she finds a kindred spirit, a man determined to write stories about the city’s legacy in which ordinary people have done — and continue to do — heinous acts.
Albanese wrote a novel that brings together the 17th century witch trials with the novel for which Hawthorne is most famous. In a culture where the separation between mind and body is enforced by a strict moral code, acts of violence against others reinforce the values attributed to gender, race and poverty, a way of projecting faults onto the bodies of others.
Isobel’s synesthesia is a gift as a seamstress, but as Albanese ramps up the tension in a harrowing plot, it becomes apparent that her belief in her gift has warped her sense of others. A world built on visual difference sends back only our distorted reflections. For Isobel to survive, she will have to learn to apprehend what hides under the fabric that she sews for others.