I was at the closest real bookstore to my home in Vermont—forty-five minutes south from where I live. I was looking for Stephen Greenblatt’s latest book (unsuccessfully, I might add), so I was browsing in order to feel less bad about the wasted trip. I had just about exhausted the entire store and was about to leave…when I passed the sci-fi and graphic novels section, where a small standing cardboard display caught my eye…with an eye peering coyly back at me through a mask on the cover of an otherwise drab, muddy, sepia-brown book.
The teeny small print in a corner of the front cover was a promo quote from another author, which claimed: “Reminiscent of Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, a book brimming with atmosphere, intrigue, and a cast of mesmerizing characters.”
It was thus that The Witches of New York by Ami McKay (Harper Perennial, 2017) came home with me. And…well…that’s what good marketing is supposed to do, right? …Contrive to remind me of another of my favorite books and lure me in with comparisons. (For the record, I am not sure I would personally equate the two books myself, but I can see why the reviewer made the connection.)
I also like to think that this is perhaps how magic works—an unexpected, synchronistic offering tucked away in a corner…a bewitched book that rather beckoned and found me and surreptitiously made its way into my possession by happenstance…and then mesmerized me with surprise adventures.
An expatriate, I had never heard of the author, Ami McKay, previously. Born and raised in Indiana, she now resides in Nova Scotia. Another of her books, The Bird House, has won multiple awards in Canada and abroad. And despite her relative geographic proximity, her foreign-ness explains a lot about my ignorance of her and her writing, because the damnable mainstream U.S. publishing industry is so insular and frightened of foreign literature…even from its English-speaking neighbors to the north.
After reading this delightful period piece, I can say that I’m very likely to keep an eye out (no pun intended—which you’ll get after reading the book) for Ms. McKay’s other works of literature.
Set in New York City in 1880, with several historical events and references as a background, a young seventeen-year-old woman strikes out on her own. Her quite independent aunt and ward is more than confident in her young charge’s ambition and endeavor to create adventures for herself down the Hudson River in the big city. And again and again the independence of women is highlighted in this book. Whereas most of us have been conditioned to believe in an historical patriarchy—of a society ruled and governed by men, and in which men precipitate any freedoms that women exercised—the truth is that virtually every society and era, no matter how repressive, has been full of women who owned property and businesses and managed affairs independently of men. This is not to say that men didn’t make things tough or complicated for women—as several episodes in this novel make clear—but that despite men’s conflated notions of superiority, women were the authors of their own lives and stories.
Everyone knows that the greatest witches come in threes…and this witch story fulfills that prescription. Eleanor St. Clair is the elder of the bunch. It is her teas and tinctures and remedies that keep patrons coming back to the teahouse. And if they didn’t come for the strangely comforting teas, they’d come back for the fortunetelling advice of Adelaide Thom, reader of tarot cards and palms. Along comes young Beatrice Dunn, ready to fill the job posting for assistant at the tea shop, and wouldn’t you know it, she’s just the medium to fit right in. Pixies provide just the right dreams to induce this or that initiative in the witches’ waking hours. And the local brigade from the Society for the Suppression of Vice cause just enough trouble to make life difficult for the three businesswomen.
As fantastical as elements of this novel can be—full of pet familiars, séances where everyone sees and hears the invited spirits, and demons that suck the marrow of dead witches for the delectable taste of magic therein—what I liked most about the witches that inhabit this book is their subtlety and their developed characters. Sure, they have grimoires…but the rituals and recipes in those grimoires are as practical and as herbaceous as the spells in contemporary spellbooks you probably have tucked on your shelf at home. Wishes and intention serve these witches well, and make the storytelling much more relatable than if resolution was found in a batch of pollyjuice potion. Teas and tinctures keep customers coming back—because they remedy real-world problems like monthly cramping and sleeplessness.
And lest you think that the banality of real-world human issues might diminish your fantasy fixation, I realized that the book could quite easily be added to your witchy bookshelf as a kind of grimoire in-and-of-iteslf. Various teas are described by full ingredient list; good luck spells are written-out in their entirety; magick sigil squares are detailed from start to finish. While reading this book, you’re likely to visit your kitchen and fire-up your kettle for a hot-brewed cup just to feel in tandem with the characters sitting and confiding with one another at a table in a corner of the tea shop. It’s truly that intimate…
The author has clearly done some research for this book. An Egyptian obelisk that traveled to New York in 1880 features prominently. I was so intrigued I had to look up the details online myself. As many times as I’ve been in Manhattan, how have I never visited Cleopatra’s Needle on the west side of the Metropolitan Museum before? I know for a fact that I’ve sat on that side of the building and eaten a picnic lunch. Now I can’t wait for my next trip in order to make a adventure of seeking-out the edifice! That is the power of this novel, mixing historical fact and storytelling—it reactivates a mysticism and adventurousness to the real world we’re living in. Highly recommended.