The reign of Richard II is troubled, the poor are about to become poorer still and landowners are lining their pockets. It’s a case of every man for himself, whatever his status or wealth. But in a world where nothing can be taken at face value, who can you trust?
The dour wool merchant?
His impulsive son?
The stepdaughter with the hypnotic eyes?
Or the raven-haired widow clutching her necklace of bloodstones?
And when people start dying unnatural deaths and the peasants decide it’s time to fight back, it’s all too easy to spy witchcraft at every turn.
I’ve wanted to read Karen Maitland’s work for years, ever since I read reviews for Company of Liars, but as often happens in a reviewer’s life, I never got to it. This made me doubly excited when this ARC for The Vanishing Witch appeared in my mailbox, but it was a big book – 688 pages in my proof copy – and it languished on my To Be Read pile. Now with the paperback for The Vanishing Witch out tomorrow, not to mention Maitland’s latest The Raven’s Head, this seemed a good time to read it. It was a wonderful read, super atmospheric and very much what I expected Maitland’s writing to be based of what I’ve read of her non-fiction articles on The History Girls.
Set in Lincoln around the time of the Peasant’s Revolt, The Vanishing Witch is an interesting story of love, lust, riches and intrigue seasoned with some supernatural elements. Maitland uses an interesting narrative structure, switching points of view between a number of characters and an omniscient narrator who sometimes interjects passages at the beginning of a chapter. It is only this unidentified narrator and the two female points of view who are written in the first person, the other (male) viewpoints are written in the third person. This not only allows her to show us all angles of the story, the reader is also presented with the mystery of the narrator’s identity and lets her introduce some uncertainty in the form of two unreliable narrators.
Even if the book is titled The Vanishing Witch Maitland never comes right out and confirms or denies whether there truly is witchcraft in the book or whether it is all done with the power of suggestion. I thought this was masterfully done and I enjoyed puzzling over it. There is certainly a sense of the supernatural to the narrative due to the unidentified narrator being a ghost, yet the magic in the book could theoretically all be reasoned away with more mundane explanations. Maitland manages to keep the possible identity of the titular witch nebulous too, leaving the reader to decide whether the women in the book are all or none of them witches.
At the heart of The Vanishing Witch is the family of Robert of Bassingham. His infatuation and eventual marriage to the Widow Catlin sets in motion a chain of events that will lead to heartbreak, death and grief for his entire family. While Robert isn’t a bad man in essence, he lets himself be blinded by Catlin and go through what is essentially a mid-life crisis. He was a sympathetic character, but also very frustrating. His sons Jan and Adam as far more easily likeable and I enjoyed the way Maitland developed them, especially Adam. My favourite members of the original Bassingham household, however, were the servants Beata and Tenney. Through their long service with the family there seems to be a strong sense of loyalty and belonging on their part, which was echoed in Adam’s trust in Beata. On the other hand, Maitland takes care to show the huge gap that existed between merchants such as Robert, people in positions of what we’d call middle management such as the overseer Fulk, and the regular workers like the boatmen, who while freemen are subject to the whim of their masters, demonstrating that the class system was already deeply ingrained in society and had already created fertile ground for the poll tax that seeded the Peasants’ Revolt.
The new additions to Robert’s family, Catlin and her children Edward and Leonia are simultaneously cast as victims and villains depending on whose point of view we’re in. Robert only sees the good in them, at least in Catlin and Leonia, while Jan, Beata, and Adam are deeply distrustful of them. Maitland skilfully employs Catlin’s point of view to keep the reader in suspense as to her true intentions, only revealing Catlin’s full hand late in the game. The character in the book I found most disturbing was Leonia. Ostensibly a beautiful, innocent young girl on the cusp of womanhood, she has many secrets and is far more cunning than any fourteen-year-old should be and her treatment of Adam and Robert was quite creepy at times.
While the main story deals with Catlin and Robert, I found the chapters dealing with the boatman Gunter and his family very compelling and I really felt for Gunter. Here is a man who tries to do everything right, to care for his family and be a decent human being and he’s being worked over by the system left, right, and centre. It was his tale that made the reasons for the Peasants’ Revolt tangible and immediate. The poll tax and the way the commissioners double-checking the entrants abused their positions, especially as regards the young girls in a household, felt so unfair and made people so powerless, it is hard to see how they couldn’t have risen again the ruling class. The Peasants’ Revolt is a fascinating event in English history and it made a wonderful backdrop for Maitland’s story, interweaving the supernatural and historic, letting the latter serve as plausible explanations for what would otherwise have to be designated witchcraft.
The Vanishing Witch is set in a fascinating era and Karen Maitland tells a fabulous story. I really enjoyed The Vanishing Witch; it offered drama, pathos, and more than a hint of mystery. If you like the intersection between historical fiction and the supernatural, this is a story you definitely shouldn’t miss.
This book was provided for review by the publisher.