At a time when “nasty women” really need to make their voices heard, this new novel by Indiana-born, Nova Scotia-based Ami McKay (The Birth House, The Virgin Cure) takes on the social forces that conspire to diminish and silence outspoken or unorthodox females.
The Witches of New York may be set in America’s Gilded Age, but its outrage feels urgent. Too bad, then, that McKay’s topical feminist message is sometimes undermined by a magic realist approach that can be strangely stolid or overly precious.
In 1880 New York, Adelaide Thom (formerly known as Moth, who figured in The Virgin Cure) and Eleanor St. Clair run a seemingly genteel shop that dispenses tea and sympathy to society ladies, with a subversive backroom line in palmistry and useful potions for finding love or ending unwanted pregnancies.
Eleanor and Adelaide are, in fact, witches, whose sneaky sabotage of the patriarchy means they are “always needed, ever hunted.” Adelaide, who has survived a horrific childhood and an acid attack that left her disfigured, is hard-headed and entrepreneurial. The older Eleanor, a former medical student raised by a mother who was also a practicing witch, tends to be cautious and patient.
The two friends clash when Beatrice Dunn, a young country girl, comes to assist in the shop, her previously unrealized ability to connect with “the unseen world” blossoming suddenly, in unpredictable and sometimes uncontrollable ways.
Beatrice’s powers attract the interest of Dr. Quinn Brody. An alienist equipped with a “spiritoscope” and other “philosophical instruments,” Brody embodies the nineteenth century’s paradoxical obsession with scientifically observing and recording the paranormal. He’s a sympathetic character, almost to the point of being flat. McKay’s description of him as “a man who believes women” also seems a bit too contemporary, with its post-Jian-Ghomeshi-trial vibe.
Unfortunately, Beatrice also draws the attention of the Reverend Francis Townsend, whose religious puritanism and fear of the sinful female nature leave him “overwhelmed with a longing for stocks and thumbscrews, pressings and hangings.” His unhinged misogyny fuels the final stretch of the plot.
McKay evokes New York as a “city of wonders,” both technological and mystical. The line between those realms often blurs, with electric lights seeming as wondrous as a society séance. Upper-class men celebrate the secrets of freemasonry; doctors delve into the mystery of female “hysteria”; “fasting girls” ostensibly live without food; an Egyptian obelisk is dragged through the city to be erected triumphantly in Central Park.
McKay brings this charged atmosphere to life through advertisements, newspaper stories, pamphlets and compendiums of “astonishments” and curious happenings. She also adds actual excerpts from Cotton Mather’s disquisition on witchcraft, written in the 1600s but clearly lingering on in the American psyche.
Perhaps because McKay is so keen to celebrate witchery as a positive force, her handling of the paranormal can be oddly earthbound. Helen Oyeyemi, for example, who has dealt with similar terrain in novels like White is for Witching, matches her occult content with slippery, sinister form.
McKay’s supernatural sequences are wobbly. She ably conjures up the disconcerting ghosts of the “scrubber girls” killed in a horrific fire at the Fifth Avenue Hotel, an actual historical event whose description demonstrates the deep and detailed research that also enlivened McKay’s previous books. But even readers sympathetic to McKay’s flights of New Age whimsy might find the “Dearlies,” fairy sprites that hover around Eleanor and Adelaide’s shop, a bit cutesy.
As she proved in The Virgin Cure, McKay has a keen Dickensian eye for the sprawl of 19th-century– New York City. Here she wanders through the luxury shops near Madison Square Park, the muck and stink of the Bowery, and Blackwell’s Island insane asylum, where gawking gentlemen take the ferry on Saturday night to dance with “the lady lunatics.”
Against this vivid background, however, individual people often get lost. Several characters seem less like distinct personalities and more like mediums, channelling the author’s message. McKay is concerned with the ways women have been oppressed through medicine, pseudo-science and religion, but she often falls back on heavy, over-explainy prose to get her point across. She finds it necessary to spell out, for example, that Adelaide and Eleanor are “two strong-willed women who refused to conform to society’s expectations,” something she could probably demonstrate rather than prosaically describe.
The Witches of New York is packed with fascinating lore and historical texture, but to fully realize the spooky, subversive possibilities of her premise, McKay needs to trust her readers as much as she trusts her three witches.
Alfred A. Knopf Canada | 511 pages | $34.95 | cloth | ISBN# 9780676979589