Anna and her mother move to a remote Scottish fishing village in the middle of the school year. She tells her new friends that they left England because her father died, but that doesn’t explain her lack of social media presence, or the fact that she changed her name. As Anna begins to investigate the history of a local girl named Maggie, who was burned as a witch, more of her own trauma is revealed. When Anna’s secret is outed and her classmates turn on her, the present begins to echo the past in terrifying ways.
The themes that Bates is exploring, including systemic misogyny, the policing of women, shaming as social punishment, and mob mentalities, are brought into sharp relief by placing Anna’s story alongside Maggie’s brutal 17th century ordeal. Maggie’s social position, due to her gender and her class, sealed her fate in a tragically inevitable way. Will Anna have more options in the 21st century?
The writing is highly readable, with hints about Anna’s past skillfully doled out, and tension is ratcheted up bit by bit before all hell breaks loose. The Burning is most alive when Anna is actively researching Maggie’s fate. A supernatural connection between the girls is tantalizingly revealed, but never developed as fully as it might have been. An atmospheric page-turner that delivers a painful, but ultimately defiant message.