Key Points:

Am I the only New Zealander of consenting age who hasn't read The Witches of Eastwick? Actually, I used to think it was the name of a B&B.

Now I've got the sequel, and found they're both by the prolific, pugnacious John Updike (who died on January 27, which means that The Widows of Eastwick may prove to be his last published work). So I obviously needed to repair my shameful omission.

Friends who've read Witches tell me it's about three Rhode Island divorcees who dabble in ceramics, gossip columns, the cello and Satanism - as one does. The last pastime is pretty full on, I gather. They go in for wax images, levitation, shrunken and/or dead husbands, plus rather a lot of phallus worship. As I say, you no doubt know all this.

As I also say, I didn't. Anyway, Widows picks up on wolfish Alex, flirtatious Sukie and sibilant Jane 30 years later, while they're re-establishing contact via travel in the Rockies, the Nile, China, Machu Picchu. Their husbands, found or manufactured in various ways, have all died in various ways.

On their travels (during which you feel that Updike is showing you his photo albums), they exert their dark arts briefly on a garrulous guide and an annoying bat. But things don't really start to hiss till they decide to spend a summer back in Eastwick, in the home of their demon seducer - again, as one does. Their old home town, now gentrified and touristy, doesn't want them back. The brother of a young woman they killed does - but not for nice reasons. Double trouble bubbles.

The maleficent trio can still summon up the odd goddess (with gear from the local op-shop and hardware store and the aid of an overweight warlock in yellow cashmere). They can dispense a fair dollop of old wives' tales; after all, that's what they are. But much of their energy goes into washing their old-fashioned XL underwear in hotel rooms, complaining about one another's snoring, coping with their emphysema, grumbling about silly young people today.

Indeed, one of the novel's more successful motifs is the essentially quotidian nature of the dark arts: the fact that they involve a lot of vacuuming and physics 101, neither of which comes easily to a 70-year-old. By the end of the book, black magic has become increasingly blue-rinsed.

Updike's writing is elliptical, weighty, magisterial. He has a lot to say about guilt, contrition, solitude and tenuous reconciliation. The more you read of it, the more Witches turns into a lament for the inexorable triumph of time and - indirectly - for the end of a great writing life.

The Widows of Eastwick
By John Updike (Hamish Hamilton $37)

* David Hill is a Taranaki writer.