Review: Spellbinding novelist Rivka Galchen’s new book is a hysterical witch hunt
On the Shelf
Everyone Knows Your Mother Is a Witch
By Rivka Galchen
Farrar, Straus & Giroux: 288 pages, $27
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When challenged, former President Donald Trump often claimed he was the victim of a witch hunt, even “the greatest Witch Hunt in American history.” This was not just an exaggeration but an inversion: He was being investigated in search of truth, while in a witch hunt, a forgone guilty verdict is reached by twisted interpretation and fantastical invention.
Especially in 1617 in Germany, the setting of Rivka Galchen’s delightfully funny second novel, “Everyone Knows Your Mother Is a Witch.” Katharina is a sharp-tongued grandmother who leads a quiet life until she catches the attention of a handful of townspeople who drunkenly accuse her of witchcraft. Did she make a woman unable to bear children? Was she responsible for the death of a hog? Katharina dismisses this as nonsense, but the town pulses with rumor, allegiances ebbing and flowing, and the case against her is serious. Her daughter-in-law Gertie delights in reading scandal sheets that describe the torture and killing of other women accused of witchcraft. One is so frightening that Katharina skips town to stay with her son.
Katharina Kepler has three adult children: Christoph, Greta and Hans. The last, Hans, is known to us as Johannes Kepler, the man behind the laws of planetary motion, an imperial mathematician and key figure in the scientific revolution. And his mother was, in fact, put on trial for being a witch. That kernel was the genesis for the novel, which is inevitably about the tension between superstition and science, between facts and fantasy.
But the book avoids being about the famed Kepler. Katharina mostly calls him Hans; she refers to his work doing astrological charts — astrology and astronomy were conjoined at the time — but knows little of his scientific pursuits. The connection is so subtle that an advance review in Publishers Weekly didn’t even catch it.
This is of a piece with Galchen’s earlier work. Her 2014 short story collection “American Innovations” riffed on iconic short fiction by men (including Haruki Murakami, James Joyce and David Foster Wallace) using female narrators in revamped situations. And her audacious 2008 debut, “Atmospheric Disturbances,” is the story of a marriage told via scientific notions and Borges-inspired narrative wrinkles. Galchen is a medical doctor with an MFA, unafraid to bring significant intelligence to her stories as well as to their structure and conception.
The stories in Rivka Galchen’s ‘American Innovations’ are inspired by works by David Foster Wallace, Haruki Murakami and others and told by female narrators.
All fiction deals with the underlying question of how it is being told — are we listening in on someone’s thoughts, or an omniscient narrator, something else? Here, Katharina, who cannot write, is giving testimony to her friend and neighbor Simon, who can.
That leaves a small space between what Katharina is thinking and what she says — although she is inclined toward saying exactly what she thinks. She calls one of her accusers “the Cabbage” and refers to another not by name but as the wife of a third-rate glazier. “They smelled of drink,” Katharina tells Simon, and us. “The crowd of them looked like a pack of dull troubadours who, come morning, have made off with all the butter.”
With descriptions like this, Galchen efficiently drops us into 17th century Germany without elaborate scene-setting. Her acknowledgements show stacks of books she read for research, but that knowledge has been absorbed and digested. She doesn’t explain; she reveals. It’s harder than it looks.
We learn about Katharina’s beloved cow, the baker she likes and the one she doesn’t, her sweet daughter and hot-tempered younger son, the town’s petty rivalries and her possibly fatal mistakes. The situation may be dire, but the novel is gosh-darn funny. Katharina is sharp and bright, and her narration sings.
Supplementing her narration are letters to the court (including actual historical letters from Johannes), townspeople’s testimonies and Simon’s contributions, which complicate his role. The testimonies appear in Q&A format, with the identity of the questioner or questioners effaced (a nod to Kafka, perhaps). The intentions of the questioner are unclear: Do they wish to see Katharina convicted and punished, or the opposite? What is clear is that the townspeople are malleable. What they believe, recall or testify may change according to the shifting mood of the town or the questioner.
What began as a minor, irrelevant incident forces Katharina to consider leaving her home more than once — leaving, then returning with the threat drawing ever nearer. As conviction comes to seem more likely, some people draw closer to her while others fall away, as typically happens to relationships during a crisis. Those elliptical orbits elegantly evoke Hans’ work describing the gravitational pull between objects. The novel’s intertwining voices also pull apart, revealing contradictions and omissions. What is known and can be shared is maybe not as simple as it first seemed.
Galchen has written another smart book that investigates the power of narrative, both good and bad, foregrounding a woman who’d only been a footnote to a famous man’s story, all while being funny and deceptively easy to read. It’s quite a magic trick.
Kellogg is a former books editor of The Times.
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