Books

Book Reviews: Joanne Harris and European Witchcraft

I’m currently doing that thing where I’m reading a book that’s both really long and really good. This means I’m trying to read it slowly to savour it more, and thus I’m not reading as many books as usual. But it’s worth it.

This week, two reviews: European Witchcraft and a novel by Joanne Harris.

European Witchcraft by E. William Monter

European Witchcraft by E. William MonterI’m currently writing a new paper for the Pilgrimage Project, which studies the similarities and differences between various Western religions. I’m therefore reviving my reading of books about the history of Paganism, since the new paper will largely be focused on that.

European Witchcraft is an odd book, because it’s basically a literature review of loads of other books. Each chapter starts with a brief intro to a given piece of work, and then quotes extensively from it, before moving on to the next book. I found this odd – I’ve never encountered it before – but not entirely unwelcome.

However, the main thing it gave me was an extension to my reading list.

Five Quarters of the Orange by Joanne Harris

Oh, Joanne Harris, how I wish I could write like you. She has this way of drawing you into a book; I feel like Harris’ writing is summed up in this quote by E.L. Doctorow:

“Good writing is supposed to evoke sensation in the reader – not the fact that it is raining, but the feeling of being rained upon.”

Joanne Harris has this absolutely nailed. I’m not a very visual person, and generally when I read any book I have only a very vague picture in my head. This suits me fine; I love words. I’m the only person I know who thinks in words rather than pictures. If someone says “grass” to me, I imagine the word “grass” rather than picturing actual grass. I can picture things in my mind, I just have to work at it a bit. (If this describes you too, please tell me! I’ve never met anyone else whose brain works like this!)

However, Harris’ novels are the single exception to this rule. She describes everything so vividly, transports the reader so masterfully into the worlds she creates, that even someone as prosaic as I can’t help but be drawn in.

Five Quarters of the Orange by Joanne HarrisFive Quarters of the Orange is set in the town of Les Laveuses in the Second World War. Our narrator is Framboise, who used to live there as a child but was driven out when something awful happened involving her family. She has now moved back, but no one knows who she is. Will the past come back to haunt her?

Of course, the characters and settings are beautifully written; I would expect nothing less. Framboise in particular, however, is a character I find relatable. Deeply flawed, yet still a good person in her own way, she says things like this:

“There’s something in me still, something hard and not necessarily good. I still feel it occasionally, a cold hard something, like a stone inside a clenched fist. I always had it, even in the old days, something mean and dogged and just clever enough to hang on for as long as it took to win.”

Five Quarters of the Orange deals not only with concepts of family, love, hatred and dark secrets; it also asks difficult questions about some of the things that happened during the Second World War. What kind of person becomes an informant? What kind of person drinks with German soldiers? What kind of person runs a secret black market shop from their establishment?

It’s a brilliant book that I already want to read again. Highly recommended.

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