“This is a book about magic and witches, self-discovery and love in its many guises. But, under the surface, it is also a story about how trauma is passed down through the generations,” writes author Mary Watson on her fierce and furious South African YA romantic fantasy novel, Blood To Poison. The historical trauma passed down from one generation to the next has many forms; it is the historical trauma felt by a country that has suffered segregation, and it is the trauma of women and girls who have been driven to feel an intense, all-encompassing fury that is both personal and collective.
The wrath of Watson’s story manifests itself in seventeen-year-old Savannah, who has inherited a sinister family heirloom passed down her bloodline for hundreds of years: the curse of dying young. Savannah is one of Hella’s girls, named after their ancestor, the enslaved woman who started it all. She is always angry, the rage surging out of her when men catcall her in the street, or bursting free during yet another confrontation with her mother’s deceitful fiancé. Each fit of fury brings Savannah closer to her ominous fate, but she’s not ready to curl up and let the curse claim her. Savannah’s survival lies in the dark underbelly of Cape Town, where the deadly veilwitches are seeking to claim the powerful magic connected to Hella and her girls.
A sunbird calls, and I think to myself: how pretty it is, this place where terrible things happened. How in this country, beauty is often the mise-en-scène for trauma.”
With her previous two YA novels, The Wren Hunt and The Wickerlight, Mary Watson delved into magical worlds steeped in Irish folklore. Blood to Poison is her first book rooted in her South African heritage and Watson’s deep connection to the country she grew up in is palpable. Its complicated, oppressive history is woven into every single page, the lingering affects of Apartheid still felt by the story’s young protagonist, as well as her family and friends. There are so very many reasons for Savannah to be angry and part of the story is her discovering a way to release her anger at the world, into the world, without losing herself in the process.
Watson weaves South Africa’s complex history with a coming-of-age story of self-discovery and a tender friends-to-lovers romance that feels effortlessly real. The witchcraft is almost underplayed, a vessel for Savannah to explore her suffering and the suffering of her family, and beyond that, the suffering of an entire nation. The beauty of Blood to Poison is that everything feels so authentic – from the magic and the landscapes, to the food and the language, to the love between the characters, whether it’s the affection between Savannah and her myriad of attentive aunties, or the connection between Savannah and Dex, the charismatic yet secretive boy she unexpectedly reconnects with who’s nursing his own internal fury.
There’s such a vibrancy in the way Watson blurs the lines of good and bad, reality and fantasy, history and present-day. Yes this is a story of suffering and slavery, violence and prejudice, but it’s also a tale of empowerment and female strength, of love, friendship and family. With Blood to Poison, Mary Watson has written her most ambitious story to date, one that’s emotional, suspenseful and perceptive. And, perhaps most importantly, feels as if it comes straight from her heart – which makes it all the more powerful.
Book to Poison was published by Bloomsbury YA on 14 April 2022