Women who cast spells and brew potions to dispel illness and fuel desire have historically been vilified as servants of the devil. Contemporary culture has, to a large degree, drained the menace and repositioned witches as figures of frivolity in TV shows such as Charmed and Bewitched and in countless YA stories. This is a problem the reader faces with Chris Womersley’s fourth novel, a commercially adventurous departure from his earlier Australian literary jaunts – is it still possible to take a story about witches seriously?
The answer is mostly yes, but it’s a bit daggy, with talk of crones and moonlit nights in the forest inviting unkind comparison with Terry Pratchett yarns, minus the jokes.
The year is 1673, and Charlotte Picot has just lost her husband and three children to plague. Determined to give her remaining son a chance, she leaves her home town and sets out for pastures new. She doesn’t get far before child slavers steal her boy and leave her for dead in the forest. She is nursed by an elderly woman who turns out to be a sorceress, looking for someone to take up the mantle of witchcraft in her stead.
Meanwhile, the wretched convict Adam du Coeuret is abruptly released from prison. Seeking a witch to assist him in recovering buried treasure, he stumbles upon the newly ordained Picot. Together, they attempt to rescue her son from a life of servitude, or worse.
City of Crows shares a theme with several of Womersley’s short stories (in particular one he had published in Granta magazine in 2011), in blurring the line between reality and fantasy. Has Picot actually become a witch, or does her spell-casting occur at fortuitous moments of coincidence? Du Coeuret, who has some experience with these matters, is convinced of her power, but Womersley cleverly sows doubt in the reader’s mind. It is in these moments of duplicity and intrigue that the narrative works best.
Womersley is an accomplished prose stylist but the literary politesse required to convey a historically plausible tone distracts from the inherent depravity of the tale, which is never truly explored. The tentative flirtation with adult horror prevents the story from ever reaching the heights of, say, Ian McGuire’s filthy and nightmarish The North Water, to which it is compared by its publisher. Disappointingly, Womersley delivers instead a formulaic supernatural tale, lacking his usual magic. JD
Picador, 400pp, $32.99
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on August 26, 2017 as "Chris Womersley, City of Crows".
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