“You know who you are. You have always been other.” Rose’s Book of Trees
Those who have always known they are other will find a home away from home in The Fifth Petal by Brunonia Barry. Set in modern Salem, Massachusetts, The Fifth Petal not only obscures the boundary between the past and the present, but it also comingles the real with the not quite real.
The Fifth Petal opens with a confrontation between Rose, a mentally challenged homeless woman, and three young punks. The one who threatens to attack Rose dies as he makes his move. Rose believes she killed him with Banshee magic. This bizarre encounter triggers a police investigation that harkens back to a singular cold-case.
In 1989 three women suspected of witchcraft are murdered in Salem. There are two survivors; however, neither appears to know the identity of the person who slaughtered the beautiful victims later to become known as the Goddesses. The bodies disappear. One witness, Rose, goes mad, and the other, a very young girl, is mysteriously whisked away. All the townspeople remember of the child is that she spent the night of horrors hiding in the underbrush, screaming like a banshee.
Twenty-five years later, Callie Cahill, the child who survived the slaughter of the goddesses, catches a glimpse of Rose on the local news program and heads back to Salem to search for answers, to illuminate the shadows that enshroud her past.
Barry creates a palpable sense of place. Salem, Mecca for witches, is real, mysterious, and strangely inviting. The descriptions are highly visual and complete without any wasted words or tedious redundancies. Readers will feel at home in every location and may believe if they ever visit Salem they will know their way around.
The plot is a unique, complex and haunted by Salem’s past and its dark, evil nature which is not due to the activities of witches, but to the machinations of nefarious Puritans. Barry melds the past with the present, comparing the behavior of persons who other those they do not understand in the past and the present. Mysterious aspects of the original witch executions are laced together with the murders of the three goddesses. The repeating focus on trees creates unity between generations and between the crimes. The inclusion of aspects of astronomy and astrology adds interest. The pacing will keep readers interested throughout the novel. The backstory guarantees that readers who did not read the precursor to this novel will enjoy The Fifth Petal as a standalone.
The characters are drawn by the hand of an artist. They are complex, diverse, flawed, and complete and enhanced by intertwined backstories that make them interesting, human, approachable. Callie is a professional practitioner of sound healing, a craft that might have sent her to the gallows during the Puritan era. Police Chief Rafferty, troubled by a past indiscretion, struggles to keep peace in Salem while he endeavors to solve the mystery of the three goddesses. His wife, Towner, dedicates her efforts to helping abused women. She also protects Callie and Rose who continues to believe she is a banshee.
Barry’s writing is immaculate, smooth, flawless and privileges show over tell. Her prodigious literary skill adds value to the tale and guarantees a pleasant reading experience. The ideal fan for this novel will most likely be female, especially those who are interested in the occult. No, there is no overt casting of spells, no spooky ceremonies, no devils. However, a perceptive reader will begin to wonder if true witchcraft is simply the inborn power of the feminine that only needs a triggering event to produce a revelation.
The Fifth Petal is a satisfying read.