Rich, vibrant and colourful, Karen Maitland’s latest outing is a closely woven tapestry of medieval superstition infused with a strong sense of place and time and ultra-modern thriller. Welcome to Lincoln, 1380s style. (Those who know the city will recognise the steep climbs around the cathedral and the little imp inside.) Here you will find Caitlin, the scheming widow-cum-wicked step-mother, Robert of Bassingham, the well-to-do, aspirational and pretentiously bourgeois merchant; hardworking Gunter who is blessed with the a that only poverty and tragedy can bestow; and the down-trodden, pock-marked and abused but loyal servant Beata. But if the characters are shallowly-drawn and a little archetypal, it is only so that nuances of character do not inhibit Maitland’s transfixing story-telling.
Told through a range of voices and perspectives, the Vanishing Witch is by turn grisly, touching, horrific and bewildering. The ‘action’ takes a little time to get going, as Maitland sets her scenes and draws together, step by step, the seemingly disparate lives of Gunter, Robert and Caitlin and their households, but when it does, this becomes a riveting and rewarding read, right down to the twist in the tale at the end. The writing is close up and intimate, creating fully realised images of both people and places – particularly Lincoln itself, the once-might centre of the English wool trade, with its busy, smelly, ruthless trading harbour and achingly beautiful cathedral spires – as a patchwork of vignettes, splashes of colour, rather than a blended vista.
I particularly enjoyed witnessing first through the eyes of Hankin, a young boy and then through those of his father, the Peasants’ Revolt in London. Gunter sees the Thames, sprawled with rich merchants’ barges, laden with worldly goods and frightened, fleeing families navigating around broken bodies and the debris of revolt. But where Gunter sees the tragedy of violence, Hankin is awed and uplifted by the prospect of the people taking power and carries himself with a verve born of the promise of liberation.
The historical setting is drawn in detail, with a series of vignettes which shed light on medieval morality and beliefs, commerce and, if you can it that, healthcare. The horrifically cruel images of the misused and forgotten Beate restrained from the neck down for hours in ice-cold water by those who are supposed to be ‘caring’ for her, and her inability to take charge of her own circumstances, will stay with me.
I struggle, usually, to give credence to supernatural powers but, although witchcraft and the ways of wise women are a running theme, and plot device, through the novel, the reader does not have to believe in them to enjoy.
The one part of the novel that worked less well for me was the attempt to build suspense about the identity of Caitlin’s lover: by the time the revelation comes his identity has been obvious for quite some time.
In short, this is a cracking novel – a good story, well told, with haunting scenes finely woven into an illuminating historical background.
The Vanishing Witch was first published by Headline Review in 2014. Use the #vanishingwitch to chat about it on Twitter.
Read and reviewed in 2014
© Jessica Mulley 2014