Book Review: The Vanishing Witch


The Vanishing Witch, by Karen Maitland, is a dark tale of treachery and oppression in medieval England. The cast of characters offer well researched glimpses into the unequal lifestyles of the citizens of that time: the wealthy merchant whose comfortable lifestyle is threatened by corruption and revolt; the boatman who cannot escape his life of hunger and squalor however hard he works; the children expected to quietly follow in their parent’s footsteps, learning their trade before they reach their teens; the women who are passed from father to husband, raised to honour and obey however their menfolk choose to behave.

In a time when the shadow of death was very much a part of life superstitions were rampant. Into this mix steps a beautiful and wealthy widow who sets out to bewitch those who will further her cause. Using a ghost as narrator the reader is offered glimpses of the deadly games she plays as she draws families and their members into her web. Utterly ruthless in her quest she destroys any who get in her way.

The story is told effortlessly. Despite being well over six hundred pages long it never dragged. The period detail is impressive, the supernatural elements suitably opaque and spine tingling.

I wanted to be impressed by this book. I enjoy historical fiction, particularly when it involves common folk rather than just the wealthy and powerful. The attention to detail couldn’t be bettered, but the plot development left me cold. Perhaps there were just too many spoilers early on. Having anticipated much of what would happen I was left with few mysteries to solve as the story progressed. I did not find this a satisfying read.

Chapter’s were told from differing points of view but I was unconvinced by their juxtaposition. Having divulged certain actions in previous chapters a character would then appear to be unaware of their own involvement. Relationships would be revealed and then not acknowledged in a character’s thoughts. For example, in a chapter that purports to be written from Catlin’s point of view she would be thinking of those around her in terms of what she knows them to be rather than as whatever role they present to others for her sake.

I did like the denouement. I could empathise with the wealthy widow when she explained why she had acted as she did although I would have preferred to have seen her daughter’s story tied up more neatly. The ghost narrator explained the mother’s but not the daughter’s skills and powers.

The sub-plots and setting of this tale impressed. There were interesting parallels with present day wealth disparities and the arrogance of those who benefit from the labour of the oppressed. It is a shame that I perceived aspects of the main storyline to be unsatisfactorily contrived in too many key reveals.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Headline.


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