Ben Peek (benpeek) wrote,
Ben Peek

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The Last Witchfinder, James Morrow.

I wasn't sure what I was going to get with James Morrow's The Last Witchfinder.

The problem, I'm sorry to say, came from Morrow's last collection, The Cat's Pajamas and Other Stories. Released in 2004, it showed the work Morrow had been producing around the seven years of writing the aforementioned novel and which, unfortunately, I found dry, and tired, and not very enjoyable. I was a little shocked, actually, because I've quite enjoyed Morrow in the past. Towing Jehovah was excellent, even if I wasn't sure it needed sequels, and I've not yet read them; his second collection, Bible Stories for Adults was fantastic, and is fully recommended; and I've long thought The City of Truth was, if a bit obvious, quite funny. In fact, I liked those books so much, that I've got a bunch of his others, which exist in my library of Books-to-be-Read-And-Purchased-Because-Everything-Goes-Out-of-Print-And-I-Really-Do-Plan-to-Read-Them-Even-if-I-Keep-Buying-More-Books-for-This-Reason. I really should shorten that, you know.

At any rate, I was unsure what I was going to get, and this uncertainty was compounded by the fact that The Last Witchfinder saw Morrow leaving behind his satirical elements. Instead, he turned towards a historical bent and took on the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries to produce a book that explored the clash of religion and science as he explored the history witch finding. Furthermore, the book would see Morrow using historical figures such as Isaac Newton and Benjamin Franklin, with the latter becoming one of the major characters in the book, but all of them playing second to a lead character, who, by the nature of her historical companions, had to be more compelling than those who had existed so prominantly.

The question that remains then, is does Morrow succeed?

Oh, yeah, he succeeds.

In The Last Witchfinder, James Morrow has produced a novel that is, simply put, fantastic. I've read some good books this year, and the two at the top are Mikhail Bulgakov's The Master and Margarita and Lydia Millet's Oh Pure and Radiant Heart, which I've talked about endlessly here, and Morrow's The Last Witchfinder is, I assure you, equal to those two, even as it is radically different, and yet, somehow, similar, in that all three take on a piece of history--Stalinism for Bulgakov, the history of American Nuclear Weapons for Millet--and all of them have a healthy thread of humour running through them, though Morrow's, strangely enough, is the least of the three. The book jacket for The Last Witchfinder hints at it being satirical, but in comparison to a book where God dies and falls out of the sky, you'll find that it is, mostly, very slight on the satire element.

The Last Witchfinder, then, is the biographical recount of philosopher Jennet Stearne, who was born in England to a witch burning father, but relocated, early in life, to the United States, and near enough to the Salem witch hunt. The book is narrated, however, most strangely, by another book, Isaac Newton's Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy, who has, it tells us, waged a war for hundreds of years against other books in the name of Reason, and who has, since it was first picked up by Jennet Stearne, been in love with her.

May I speak candidly, fleshling, one rational creature to another, myself a book and you a reader? Even if the literature of confession leaves you cold, even if you are among those who wish that Rousseau had never bared his soul and Augustine never mislaid his shame, you would do well to lend me a fraction of your life.

You might think that a book narrated like so, and which constantly switches between the Principia (for short) and Jennet and half a dozen other narrators (her brother, father, Benjamin Franklin, Isaac Newton, and others) would be intrusive, and I suppose, for some, it will be, but I didn't find it so. There were times when I thought the once a chapter intrusion by the Principia was a forced, mainly around the middle of the book, but Morrow's ability to switch the voices, and the way in which he has managed it, are such a fine and delicate example of prose that, even when the Principia did not relate fully to the story, I was always impressed by the way the voices changed. In fact, the book might very well be worth reading for those changes, if Morrow had not crafted such a fine and fascinating character as Jennet Stearne.

In Jennet, Morrow has provided the reader with a female lead who, as the reader follows her from childhood to adulthood, and as her obsession to end the practice of witchfinding grows, and as it dictates her life, and finally takes her to the act of desperation at the end of the novel, is nothing short of fascinating. During her life, Jennet will witness the horrific act of burning, live with Indians, give birth to three children, fail as a mother to all, become shipwrecked, and be, at all times, beholden to her desire to see Reason--as she understands it in her time, for as the Principia explains, she is not always right--to see Reason triumph over superstition. The climatic trial of the book is so well tied to this and the character of Jennet that it never for a moment slips and, that, well, it just ends in a way that is at all times satisfying.

With a lot of books I really like, I try not to say much about the plot, so there'll be no more. However, I do want to spend a moment telling you that Morrow has written a beautiful book. Prose wise, there rarely feels as if there is a word out of place, and even with the characters speaking in a Ye-Olde-English way, the reader is never bogged down or lost in it. It is, at all times, clear and easy to follow, and the pacing is swift. The first hundred and fifty pages suffer a bit from that, however, as Morrow covers the first twenty years of Jennet's life--you feel as if he is doing it just to lay the ground work for the more interesting events to follow, and I guess that he is, really. Given the book's length at five hundred and twenty pages, however, there is a lot in the book to make up for this, and Morrow follows through on that, and as I said, the end is just perfect for the book.

The Last Witchfinder, James Morrow.

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