Arie and I went to Amsterdam a couple of months ago to get some clothes for a big night out with his colleagues. As the English-language bookstores are in Amsterdam, he very kindly offered to buy me two books while we were there! Woo! So while I was browsing, this title The Witches caught my eye. Coincidentally enough, I’d read the book’s synopsis only a day or two before and it had struck me as interesting and the cover was really very pretty (in a slightly creepy sort of way). With this in mind, I decided to take the book.
Presentation: A large paperback. There are 346 pages broken down into 25 chapters of roughly the same length.
Story: Canon Thorby is looking for someone to replace the current headmistress, who is retiring, of his small private school in Walwyk. Miss Mayfield appears to be the perfect choice: she spent a good length of time abroad in Entuba, Africa, trying to improve the lives of the natives; she appears to be docile and keeps to herself - just the woman for the job.
But when Miss Mayfield arrives in Walwyk, she soon discovers that one of her pupils is being abused by her grandmother and for some unknown reason, this girl will not speak out against her abuser. Miss Mayfield realises that not all is quite right in this seemingly quaint village and anyone who gets too close to the truth ends up having an accident. Despite the dangers, Miss Mayfield is determined to get to the bottom of everything.
Thoughts and impressions: The first thing I have to say is that at no point did I really feel any tension. Even at the end of the book when the climax was in full swing it was never particularly suspenseful. A lot of the time the narrative was just meandering about, hinting at various things but never getting to the point where I really wanted to know more about them. Indeed, after Miss Mayfield’s inevitable ‘accident’, I was ready to tear my hair out as it just completely stopped the story when it had only just got to the point where it was verging on getting interesting.
What’s more, there were a number of threads of the plot that were just left hanging. Miss Mayfield sets up a date with a man but the book finishes before it gets to that point. She pawns a ring as she desperately needs the cash, repeating multiple times that she wants it back but she never goes to pick it up. We never find out what happened to Rose’s letters (though I suppose we can guess).
I never really felt a connection to most of the characters and I think at times I was supposed to. Isabel Thorby is one where I don’t know how exactly I was supposed to deduce her role from the one short scene she gets towards the start of the story.
Really, I suppose that the story is perfectly fine, just somewhat dated. For all I know, this might have been typical of a horror story in the 1960s when it was written. Now, it never got my heart beating a little faster or had me hooked on every word on the page. I did, however, stop and blink a few times when I managed to forget that there have been significant advances in technology and then something is referred to in the story that was cutting-edge at that time but standard now (such as a torch with two buttons: one so the light flashes on only while the button is pressed and one that can be left down so that the light stays on.)
It’s funny that this would happen as I was almost always aware of the difference in other areas of society, such as religion. Though her religion doesn’t play a major role, Miss Mayfield does occasionally refer to God and the divine hand guiding her as well as a number of other things that were a common way of thinking in that day and age but have become less wide-spread in an increasingly atheist society.
While I’m sure that the author did her research on ‘witches’, a lot of the rites described in the book just seemed to be along the ‘we-reject-Christianity!’ lines and were designed to shock a Christian reader rather than actually being anything like the rituals I know of. As such this didn't ring true for me and just felt like anti-witchcraft propaganda.
And lastly, the ending was not very satisfactory. It felt to me as though the ending came before the story had really ended.
Style: Though the author's name on the book is masculine, this is actually a pseudonym and the author was a woman. I was fairly aware of this from the style of the narrative. I couldn’t say what, exactly stood out to me as being a marker of a female writer, but it just didn’t feel very male as I was reading it. The style is good, though the writing is full of punctuation that shouldn’t be there. There are commas randomly placed in the middle of sentences and speech marks where there is no speech. This made things confusing at times.
Final verdict: Though the style was fine, the story failed to capture and keep my attention. 2 stars.
Extra notes: I don’t remember any bad language. Sex behind closed doors.