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The Vanishing Witch
on 7 July 2014
This novel takes us from September 1380 to September 1381 and takes place mainly around the city of Lincoln. The main plot revolves around respected wool merchant, Robert of Bassingham, married to Edith and with two sons, Jan and Adam. When Robert is approached by wealthy widow, Catlin, he is flattered and happy to help give her advice. Before long, Catlin has wormed her way into Robert’s affections and into his household, although Edith’s maid Beata is suspicious of her motives and Jan feels he is making a fool of himself with the younger woman.
A side story concerns river boatman Gunter, who lives with his beloved wife and children in a small village outside of the city. Work is hard to find and the family live in poverty, but their troubles are about to be increased with the new poll tax. This was a tax to be paid for every person in a household over the age of fifteen and, not trusting those paying to declare everyone in their family, Commissioners would visit and carry out intrusive and crude investigations into the age of children living there which caused outrage among the people already struggling to pay. As Gunter works for Robert and lives in a cottage owned by him, their stories interact throughout the novel.
I have read, and enjoyed, all of Karen Maitland’s novels and this is certainly one of her best. Anyone familiar with her books will know that there is often a magical element to her stories and this is the case in this one too. With tales of ghosts, sorcery and witchcraft, this is a tale of murder and magic. From the beginning, we doubt the motives of Caitlin and her children – the arrogant Edward and the sinister Leonia – and her designs on Robert and his family. Yet, it is unclear that is to blame for unfolding events and, indeed, there are a number of plot twists which will alter your perception of the different characters as you read on
Although I really enjoyed the mystery concerning Robert of Bassingham, I felt the storyline concerning the Peasants’ Revolt worked less well. This is a pretty hefty book, but still the author perhaps tries to fit too many side stories and events into the plot. However, as always, her characters are interesting and her ability to create a realistic historical background excellent. Each chapter begins with spells and anti-witchcraft charms, taken from medieval texts and folklore, which help set the scene and create an arresting atmosphere. Lincoln is a city where the rich fear attack, the poor fear starvation and unrest lurks, alongside the spirits, in the narrow lanes. If you enjoy historical mysteries, then Karen Maitland is an author that you should certainly add to your reading list.