Readers who revelled in Kathleen Kent’s outstanding debut novel, The Heretic’s Daughter, can rest assured that the classy US author has not lost her deft touch.
The Traitor’s Wife is the gripping prequel to her first book which was set amidst the hysteria of the Salem witch trials in 17th century Massachusetts and takes up the early life of Martha Carrier, based on Kent’s own doomed ancestor.
It’s a torrid, sultry and intensely human tale that transports us from the dangerous politics of Charles II’s neurotic and vengeful Restoration court to the industrious and cloistered backwaters of New England.
At its heart is a simmering romance between the brooding and enigmatic Thomas Carrier and the confined and caustic Martha Allen, forced to work as a servant in her own cousin’s household.
As their sexual chemistry starts to sizzle, Martha unpicks Thomas’s mysterious past and discovers events from the English Civil War which could end their relationship in one fell swoop.
Martha’s parents want her to find a husband. At 23, she’s virtually on the shelf and no-one knows better than Martha that her stubborn and contrary ways haven’t helped.
So until she finds a man prepared to take her on, she must pack her few things in a bit of cotton sacking and spend her days in service to other families.
This time around, she faces the indignity of working as a servant in the chaotic and neglected home of her pregnant cousin Patience Taylor, husband Daniel and their two young children.
Within hours of her arrival, she is locking horns with everyone in the house from the querulous and neurotic Patience to Daniel’s manservant, Thomas Carrier, a hard-bitten Welshman noted for his height and immense strength.
Meanwhile, at Whitehall Palace in London, Charles II is still determined to track down the ‘regicides’ who beheaded his father, particularly Thomas Morgan, the man who wielded the axe.
Morgan has been traced to Massachusetts and his execution would send out a powerful message to both the people and Parliament, and help the restless king to sleep again at night.
To that end, a group of reckless and unprincipled mercenaries has been dispatched to the rugged New World to either capture or kill the former soldier.
As the assassins close in on Thomas, an unlikely relationship with the forceful Martha is growing ever deeper and suddenly he has everything to lose.
There is no escape from the haunting legacy of the past - even in the remotest parts of New England.
Kent’s evocative and flawless prose draws a picture of a claustrophobic and suspicious society as it edged slowly towards the notorious witch trials which saw an explosion of internecine violence.
Nature in all its raw beauty jostles with the everyday realities of hardship, death and religious superstition and, amidst it all, families struggle to raise their children, eke out a living and make sense of their volatile world.
The Traitor’s Wife is a sensuous feast full of fluent, flowing language and rich characterisation; it is also a story steeped in real historical detail and nail-biting suspense.
An impressive achievement.
(Macmillan, paperback, £12.99)