Book review: The Witches of New York by Ami McKay

New York in 1880, a city where past and present collide, a place of breathtaking ideas, exciting new beginnings'¦ and where centuries-old witchcraft works its mysterious magic.

By The Newsroom
Thursday, 27th October 2016, 11:47 am
Updated Thursday, 27th October 2016, 4:45 pm
The Witches of New York
The Witches of New York

Step into an exciting and spellbinding world, brought to us by the soaring imagination of Ami McKay, author of best-selling novels The Birth House and The Virgin Cure, and a celebrated purveyor of intrigue, dark arts and fascinating fragments of real history.

Inspired by the discovery that her nine times great-aunt Mary Ayer Parker was executed at Gallows Hill in 1692 for witchcraft during the turmoil of the notorious Salem witch trials, McKay set out to discover what the word ‘witch’ really means and to unearth the correlations between 17 th century witch hunts and the patronising view of womanhood which held sway in the Victorian period.

The result is this dark, atmospheric tale that takes us deep inside the lives of three remarkable young women as they navigate the glitz, grotesqueries and male prejudices of Gilded-Age New York in any way they can, even if that means using witchcraft.

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In 1880, New York has become a city of ‘astonishments.’ The great Egyptian obelisk, Cleopatra’s Needle, is about to land on its shores, the Brooklyn Bridge is to become the Eighth Wonder of the World and Broadway will soon be aglow with electric lights.

And 200 years after the trials in Salem, Adelaide Thom has left her life in the fortune-telling sideshows to open a tea shop with Eleanor St Clair, a former medical student and keeper of spells, who feels it is finally safe to describe herself as a witch. Together they cater to Manhattan’s high society ladies, specialising in cures, palmistry and potions, and in guarding the secrets of their clients.

All is well until an enchanting young woman named Beatrice Dunn arrives at their door seeking employment. Beatrice, who is still only vaguely aware of her special gifts, soon becomes indispensable as Eleanor’s apprentice but her new life with the witches is marred by strange occurrences.

She sees things no one else can see and she hears voices no one else can hear. Objects appear out of thin air, as if gifts from the dead. Has Beatrice been touched by magic or is she simply losing her mind? Eleanor wants to tread lightly and respect the magic manifest in the girl, but Adelaide sees a business opportunity.

Amidst the tug-of- war over what is best for her, Beatrice disappears, leaving Adelaide and Eleanor to wonder whether it was by choice or by force. As they begin the desperate search for Beatrice, they are confronted by accusations and spectres from their own pasts.

In a time when women are corseted, confined and committed for merely speaking their minds, are any of them truly safe?

McKay’s seductive novel unfurls slowly amidst a miasma of menace, mischief, mystery and mesmerising magic as the three modern day witches mix their potions and ply their dark trade to bring help and hope to the city’s women in need.

This a clever, compelling story of determined, independent women fighting for a place in a man’s world of chauvinism, oppression and prejudice and using trickery and witchcraft to do remarkable and unexpected things.

Their enemies are not alien spirits but flesh-and- blood humans, the ruthless zealots and the vengeful males who fear the empowerment of women and would see them stopped at any price.

Using the atmospheric backdrop of New York City on the cusp of monumental change and packed with the wisdom of the ages and the authority of an author with a resonant message, this is a rich, chilling and thrilling story.

(Orion, trade paperback, £13.99)