|Cover by Lisa Marie Pompilio|
Orbit, 21 March 2019
One of the lovely things about book blogging is being sent books out of the blue, like this, so different from what I might buy myself - but which are just so right for me. It gets me out of my ruts, and I'm so grateful to Nazia at Orbit for a free advance copy of The Witch's Kind.
Opening in June 1947, this is the story of Barrie-Anne Blythe, a young woman living in a remote coastal community in Oregon in the US North West. It's also about her Aunt Charlotte, and Barrie-Anne's adopted daughter, Emma. Barrie-Anne farms a few acres of land that belonged to her husband Will; Charlotte is an artist who makes her living illustrating medical texts but pours her heart into her abstract canvases. And there's Willow, the dog, who is devoted to Barrie-Ann and Emma.
The Witch's Kind moves backwards and forwards in time to tell us a little about Barrie-Ann's earlier life - both her parents died when she was young, and strange, solitary, Charlotte brought her up alone - about her marriage to dashing, unstable, unsafe Will and about the effect on them both of the War, when Will joins the Navy and is sent to the Pacific. But the book is foremost, I think, a study of women's lives, of the expectations projected onto them and of quiet, loving, determined resistance. The conversations between Barrie-Anne and Charlotte, what's said and not said, the gradual exploration of each others' lives and of their family history, are actually very moving as is the support Charlotte gives when mercurial Will bursts onto the scene.
Will is a study in himself, a version of toxic masculinity made more convincing by his being, at times, oh so amenable and charming. He isn't even a complete monster - what we learn about his background is actually deeply sad, but this only makes him even more chilling and creepy and Morgan conveys with almost surgical precisions the emotional effect of this on Barrie-Ann. That is hard to take at times, it is so well portrayed and the subtle demolition Will carries out to his wife's independence and sense of self so devastating that I think a content warning might be appropriate for any woman who has suffered such an experience in her own life.
There is a puzzle to Will and his comings and goings, only one of the wider mysteries in this book. There is the mystery of the Blythe women. There are rumours of strange sights in the sky and the sea. Roswell is being reported, and a couple of Men in Black even turn up. Underlying all is the dislocation of the War and uneasy attempts to reset things - all those men returning and wanting "their" jobs back - and a sense of policing women who may have got out of line, who are "different". Here Barrie-Anne, with her missing husband, and Charlotte, who never had one, may be at particular risk of standing out, even without their family "gift".
The book's title, referring to that, may seem like a rather obvious hint about what goes on here but while there is a strand of magic in the book - and it is important to the plot - I'm not sure about the word "witch". It seems a somewhat over definite term for the mysterious ability passed down among the Blythe women, as well as creating particular expectations for what you might find in the story. But there are no covens here, no wider organised society of women using magic and in fact I don't think the word "witch" occurs anywhere in the story. It's a much more subtle book than that, a book about love and abuse, about defending what is precious, the lengths one might go to to do that, and about male corruption and selfishness.
So there are also redeeming strands - the strong presence of Aunt Charlotte (Aunt Charlotte is really cool!), an act of charity and solidarity with Barrie-Anne's by her neighbours which lifts her at a particularly low point, the quiet affirmation of a country doctor who carries his own sorrow with him - and even the devotion of the dog, Willow. It's these quiet people (dogs are people, didn't you know?) and moments which weigh against the bluster, the whining, the bullying.
I loved this book - it's one I had to read on and on at a gallop, unputdownable in that overused phrase - and I would recommend it highly.
(Also, that cover by Lisa Marie Pompilio is superb...)