We Played with Fire by Catherine Barter

we played with fire
Quite often, when I’m running through the benefits of reading with a group of children, the first answer they come up with is that reading gives you knowledge. And although primarily I don’t read to gain knowledge, so much as for pleasure and immersion in a good story, I do appreciate that much of the time, knowledge is being absorbed anyway. Catherine Barter’s last novel, Troublemakers, was a pleasure to read. The characterisation was strong and the plot compelling, and this second novel plays to both those strengths, whilst also giving an insight into a part of history of which I was unaware.

We Played With Fire toys with the story of the Fox sisters, a trio who inspired the creation of spiritualism in late nineteenth-century America, by holding public seances. The book starts with sisters Maggie and Kate in a remote farmhouse, apparently driven from town by Maggie’s strange tales of ghostly sightings and interference. The sisters play tricks on their parents at night by making strange sounds, but when the house starts to join in, seemingly all on its own, the neighbours believe that someone or something is trying to speak to them from beyond the grave. Before long, the girls are believed to be mediums, and with the help of their elder sister Leah, transport their business to New York.

Barter plays with the reader as much as the sisters toy with their audiences, so that one is ever quite sure how much is fabricated by the sisters and how much might have been truly felt by them to be real. Barter focuses in on Maggie as the protagonist, weaving the story from her point of view, and the character fluctuates ambiguously between naïve and scared child, and all-knowing young woman, with hints of Abigail Williams from The Crucible. She is an innocent young teenager, manipulated by her older sister. In fact, the dynamics of the family are as much at play here as the spirits, and as alliances change and split, Maggie becomes more and more sympathetically seen by the reader.

Barter is brilliant at bringing history to life, making the characters sing from the page, and providing just enough detail of 19th century New York with its food and fashions and décor. She also brings history up to date with her modern interjections that dissect the stifling restrictions of the patriarchal society in which the sisters lived. Maggie’s friendship with a woman called Amy infuses the story with a sense of injustice, as Amy is involved with the underground railroad, smuggling slaves from the Southern States to freedom.  Through this prism, the reader sees Maggie’s conflict with the influences all around her – from those who would change society, decrying even the church and its patriarchal hold over women, to those who would call her a witch for her sacrilegious dalliance with the dead.

But mainly, readers will be spellbound by the spookiness of the telling. The raps and knocks, the falling of a picture frame, the ghostly figures in the dark. Each chapter hinges on a cliffhanger, as the reader waits in suspense to see which plot turns are the girls’ doing and which are the ghosts, and who or what will scupper them. And of course, when does fame turn into notoriety, and what does a girl really want from life anyway, and what is she permitted to want?

A fascinating character and period piece, as well as a gripping little historical ghost story – this is a wonderfully told second novel. As I said with Troublemakers, I can’t wait to see what this author does next.

With thanks to Andersen Press for granting me permission to read a review copy.