The Witches by Francoise Mallet-Joris
I … I can’t do it; I’m a mere 28 pages into The Witches by Francoise Mallet-Joris—a far cry from my normal minimum of 50 pages—and I’m throwing in the towel.
Part of my love of reading is a love for experiencing stories on a personal, immersive level. I don't like movies or television shows nearly as much, because I don't think they can achieve this same level of immersion. With visual media we literally watch characters live their lives; we’re not seeing the world through their eyes.
It should come as no surprise, then, that I often struggle with books that have a hard narrator.
If the narrator is also essentially a character—think the narrator from The Turn of the Screw—I can roll with that. And if the narrator is a bit matter-of-fact and exists to impart things we otherwise couldn’t know—think the narrator from Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell—I can roll with that too.
If the narrator is an ambiguous middle-person pontificating on life and the universe and the nature of being human—think Even Cowgirls Get the Blues—I cannot roll, because I cannot immerse myself in anything but the narrator’s hot-takes on what's up with the character right now and related philosophical musings. And while I love books that make me ponder philosophically, I universally distrust books that do the philosophical pondering for me and then hand over their ideas as if they were facts.
The Witches falls spectacularly into this realm of disembodied pontificating voice. I’ll give you an example paragraph:
Anne had reached the age of fourteen, an age when the worst and the best mingle, and in her shrewdness, her sly, false humility, is it not possible to distinguish a humble and secret need to be loved and accepted, along with a fear of being unworthy? And, too, can one not decipher her need to feel that others were like herself in her effort to find the flaw, the weak point in their lives, since she herself felt invested with sin? Sin is something children feel most keenly, because it is not yet masked by the travesties of social life. The child who tortures an animal, humiliates a comrade, filches an object, or succumbs to impure behavior does not give to its cruelty the alibi of power, to its pride that of merit, to its avidity that of need, to its concupiscence that of love. The child knows evil in an undiluted state, gratuitous, as he is occasionally privileged to know good. Thus, the child may have the spiritual intuitions whose depth amazes. But he has this sensitivity only to lose it afterward, and to recover it only after a thousand transformations.
Most (if not all) of the 28 pages I read read like that. Anne—the protagonist—is only experienced through the voice of this narrator. And oof, what a voice. Love it or hate it, it has a serious presence. There’s no ignoring it.
The funny thing is I don’t feel comfortable judging The Witches. It could be amazing or it could be awful, all I know for sure is it’s not me. Even on the bus, I’d read part of a paragraph and get distracted. I had nothing better to do, but, well, staring out the window seemed nicer somehow. Which is why I’m moving on.
Cover art by Unknown, though some suggest Leo and Diane Dillon are the artists. Leo and Diane Dillon are a married couple who, as Black artists, did a ton to represent people of color in illustrations. Their work is incredible.