You know you’ve read a good book when you come to write a review and you can’t even think of where to start with all the things you want to say about it.
Such is the case with Hester, a wonderfully vivid reimagining of the woman behind ‘The Scarlet Letter’ by Nathaniel Hawthorne. The author, Laurie Lico Albanese, delves deep into 1800s Salem, a community recovering from the trauma of the past witchcraft trials, through her main character - Isobel Gowdie. Gowdie is a beautifully written protagonist who moves with hesitant boldness through the world as she navigates her life as a woman, and as someone who experiences synesthesia (a condition meaning that she sees letters as colours).
What are the primary themes of the book?
Female-ness: Laurie Lico Albanese explores what it meant to be identified as female in the 1800s through a strong cast of diverse female characters. Isobel Gowdie is a white, working-class woman who dreams of setting up her own sewing business. But no one, least of all herself, believes that is actually possible, and her efforts are exploited and used by others. Widow Higgins is an elderly woman who is dismissed by the Salem community as eccentric and odd, scary even. She is the projection of their fears of the female who does not conform to traditional stereotypes of womanhood. And Mercy is a Black woman who is often ostracised from white members of Salem’s community. Yet an unlikely friendship springs up between her and Isobel, as the two women help one another evade the various violences that others would wish upon them.
Trauma: Hester is set in Salem decades after the infamous Salem witch trials. Some people in the community were families of the victims, and some were families of the perpetrators. The past hangs heavy over the current community, especially Nathaniel Hathorne, who feels extreme guilt and shame for his forefathers’ actions in condemning the ‘witches’ to death.
Love: Isobel Gowdie is a loveably naive character who learns throughout the book what love means and looks like in a healthy context. She is often drawn to men who belittle, control and misuse her. Through these experiences she starts to dwell more on the happy relationship she thought she had with her parents, realising that sometimes their actions had harmed her or were perhaps not as loving as they at first appeared.
Three reasons why you should consider reading this book:
Laurie Lico Albanese’s style is incredibly immersive. It is rich with smells, colours, tastes, and details of life in the past. When you are reading it, the present world fades away and instead you are living in Hester’s version of the past. Or, as our commissioning editor Aimée put it, it is rare to find a book this well crafted.
Hester has beautiful and yet subtle ways of exploring the past through a feminist lens. Isobel Gowdie is a nuanced female protagonist and many of the supporting cast are also amazing lenses into different ways that feminine identity was navigated in a very patriarchal society.
The characters are deep and complex. It is rare to read a book that evades stereotyping its characters so thoroughly. Each individual cast member is unique, with their own voice and way of moving through the book. This is part of what makes this book incredibly rich and satisfying to read.
And a cheeky fourth reason that Hester is an indie book since it is published by an independent publisher – Duckworth Books. This means that by buying this book you are supporting an independent publisher who doesn’t come loaded with squillions and gadzillions. They are a small team of seven who work to bring literary and historical fiction to readers as well as various non-fiction titles.
I can’t rate this book highly enough! If you want to hear more, head over to Asteria Press' 'The Indie Bookshelf' podcast to listen myself and Aimee chat all about Hester!