The Vanishing Witch by Karen Maitland

Oh, what a recipe for a book to read on a dark winter night!

A setting in Mediaeval England!
The Peasants Revolt of 1381 as a backdrop!
Witches  – and a ghost!
A touch of the Gothic!
And a very strong thread of suspense!

I have loved Karen Maitland’s novels in the past and, after being rather disappointed in the one before this one, I am so pleased to be able to say that this is a return to form.

The setting is city of Lincoln, where the wool trade is in decline and  rich and poor are feeling the consequences. The city and the period are wonderfully evoked, but at the heart of the story are the people. Because this is a very human story; a story of a family and community, jealousy and ambition, bitterness and retribution ….

Robert of Bassingham is a prosperous wool merchant and a pillar of the community. His dour wife, Edith, runs his home well; their elder son, Jan, is his father’s steward; and their younger son, 12-year-old Adam, shows great promise.

Caitlin, a widow newly arrived in Lincoln, asks him to advise how she should invest her savings.  She charms him, and very soon he is utterly smitten. He finds Leonia, her precocious 13-year-old daughter, just as charming, but he is wary of Edward, her arrogant and indolent adult son.

When Edith falls ill Caitlin is quick to offer support and practical help.

Is she acting from the goodness of her heart, or does she have some other motive?

untitledThere are new alliances formed and there are fallings out as the two families move closer together. There are also consequences that nobody could have foreseen.

Loyal servants, Beata and Tenney, are pulled into the situation.

Gunter, a poor boatman, fears for his son, Hankin, who has run away to join the revolt is involved too.

A stranger to the city is trying to reach Robert, trying to warn him, but there is always something in his way.

And there is a ghost, whose identity, whose purpose, will not be revealed until the story ends.

The characters are well drawn and defined, and the story twists and turns so cleverly as the narration moves between them. I had ideas, but I was never quite sure where the story was going to go, I never quite knew who was reliable and who was unreliable.

Each chapter begins a spell or a charm, taken from medieval texts and folklore; they’re fascinating, and they echo and emphasise the thread of fear and superstition that runs through the story.

I found much to enjoy: I loved Beata and the dramatic twist her story took; I was fascinated – and horrified – at the way Leonina’s character grew; I loved the atmosphere that Karen Maitland conjured up; and I really loved the way my perceptions shifted as different characters took their turn to tell the tale.

But there were things I found disappointing. The story around the Peasants Revolt was less effective than the story around Robert of Bassingham’s family; some revelations came too soon, and some of them weren’t as startling – or as convincing – as they might have been; and I couldn’t help the story could have been tightened up a little, that this book didn’t need to be quite as hefty.

But, that said, it was engaging from start to finish and utterly readable; a dark historical mystery, underpinned by solid research, that moves like a thriller.

It starts slowly but as the seemingly disparate strands are drawn together, it picks up pace and builds to an dramatic and incendiary final act.

This isn’t Karen Maitland’s best book, but I’m glad that she does what she does, and I know I’ll be picking up her next book next year.

14 responses

  1. I, too was disappointed with the previous novel so this becomes a must when without your review I’d have been very wary.
    Thank you

  2. I love stories about witches! and the setting sounds very much like something I’d enjoy. I haven’t read anything by this author – I need to see if her books are available here.

  3. How lovely when you have a reliable writer and you know you can grab their new book and it’s going to be good. How terrible when they disappoint! (I had an awful year with Douglas Coupland and Anne Tyler a few years ago). I’m glad you persisted with this author and came to another decent one!

    • The disappointing book wasn’t disastrous, but it was definitely below par. I’ll always give an author I’ve liked the benefit of the doubt after one disappointment, and this book confirmed that was the right policy.

  4. Sounds great, but, since I haven’t read any of her stuff and I note that you say this isn’t her best, do you have a recommendation of which one would be the best to start with?

  5. I have a copy of this book but haven’t read it yet, so I’m pleased you enjoyed it. I’ve actually just finished reading a non-fiction book about the Peasants’ Revolt – maybe this would be a good time to read a novel set in the same period.

  6. I’ve not read any of Maitland either, but have a couple on the shelves I think – hopefully one of them is one of the ones you recommend above.

  7. What a wonderful review! Maitland’s is a name which I see everywhere, but I’ve never got around to reading any of her books myself. This is a must for the to-read list, I think!

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