The Burning by Laura Bates review – a tale of two witch-hunts

Past and present are interwoven in this powerful young adult novel by the founder of the Everyday Sexism project

Juxtaposing past and present so that historical evil bleeds into contemporary reality is not a new concept in young adult literature. Witch-hunting, too, is a time-honoured trope; Elizabeth George Speare’s The Witch of Blackbird Pond, Celia Rees’s Witch Child and many other YA novels use it as a lens to focus themes of misogyny, collective cruelty and the policing of women’s bodies. In her debut YA novel, Laura Bates, the founder of the Everyday Sexism project, interweaves a thoroughly 21st-century phenomenon – the “slut-shaming” of a teenage girl after her boyfriend broadcasts an intimate photo of her online – with its 17th-century equivalent: a young rape victim, shamed for bearing a child out of wedlock, is condemned and executed as a witch. These may be familiar stories, but in Bates’s assured hands they feel newly forged.

After her online exposure and public excoriation, 15-year-old Anna has erased her internet presence, her old name and her old life. Traumatised and grieving for her father, who died only months ago, she’s anxious to pass unnoticed in the small Scottish village to which she and her mum have moved for a fresh start. When she unwittingly alienates school kingpin Simon Stewart, however, his malign attention jeopardises her anonymity. As the embers of old rumours flare back into furious life, Anna investigates a dark chapter of local history, the story of Maggie, a rebellious girl who caught the eye of the laird’s son – and paid dearly for it.

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