First off you can’t tell me you looked at that cover without wanting to drop whatever you’re doing and charge through the doors of the nearest bookshop to demand they sell you a copy right now. I mean I guess you could, but I wouldn’t believe you, cos it’s actually not possible. That daguerreotype picture, the gold lettering, the fucking blood splatter. Don’t let anyone tell you covers don’t sell books; I was hooked on this well before I knew anything about the plot or the author. And a good thing too, cos THE YEAR OF THE WITCHING might well turn out to be one of my top books this year!
It’s the story of Immanuelle Moore, a young mixed race woman in the puritanical settlement of Bethel, where the Prophet’s word is law and women are expected to be meek and obedient. Her white mother’s union with a black ‘outsider’ has cast her once proud family into disgrace and rumours of her ancestors consorting with the witches of the Darkwood cause many to look on Immanuelle with fear and suspicion. When a chance mishap forces her into the depths of the woods and she finds herself face to face with those same witches, Immanuelle begins to confront why her mother chose to consort with them, while uncovering even darker secrets surrounding the prophets and the stifling theocracy that rules over Bethel.
I expected this book to be dark, but I didn’t expect it to be this dark. There’s a lot of troubling themes explored, from severe misogyny and racism, to paedophilia and sexual assault. Like the best horror stories, it shows us that the most disturbing things that can happen to us are all to real and are committed not by witches and monsters, but by people and the oppressive systems that rule over our lives. I really came to despise the Prophet and his egomaniacal lust for power, but what this book did well was put him in context; he’s the result of a social system that places people like him beyond reproach and all others (but especially women, and even more especially, black women) as subject to his whims and desires, dressed up though they are in the words of holy scripture.
Opposed to this it would have been easy to root for Immanuelle regardless, but Alexis Henderson didn’t take anything for granted. Immanuelle is everything. I’d probably die on a pyre myself to save her from all the shit she goes through in this book (and reader, she wades through a ton of shit). She’s a mixed race woman in a white society that quite literally frames whiteness as all that is good and holy, and blackness as cursed and evil; she’s a woman in a violently patriarchal society, where men can take as many wives as they wish (literally carving sigils into their wives foreheads to display ownership) while women are subjected to corporal punishment for the crime of ‘tempting’ men into indiscretions. Despite this, Immanuelle is strong-willed and refuses to be entirely ground down by her oppressive environment. She’s still very much a part of her society though and conforms to most of the strict customs demanded of her. Henderson does a phenomenal job of portraying the contradictory push and pull of these two forces shaping Immanuelles’s actions and changing views of the world as she navigates through the story and, for me, that was one of the most compelling parts of this book.
And what is any horror story without a hefty dose of atmosphere? Henderson absolutely nails this. From the oppressive puritanical land of Bethel, to the Darkwood with its legends of witches and missing children, to the horrifying effects of the plagues that promise to be unleashed should Immanuelle fail to defeat the power of the vengeful witches of the wood. I was honestly pretty well freaked out at parts of this story, it was really bloody disturbing actually. It’s a tale built on tropes we’re very familiar with, but Henderson wields them with such power and skill that they buzz with a seemingly uncontrolled energy that fills your imagination with horror and anger and hope all at once, finally building to a crescendo that floored me stone dead. And when I say that I mean I was listening to the audiobook on my walk to work and literally stopped in my tracks, standing stock still, mouth hanging wide at the nightmare that was unfolding before me.
THE YEAR OF THE WITCHING is utterly compelling, horrifying and knows exactly what it wants to say and doesn’t flinch at saying it. It explores some very difficult topics with a deft skill that still doesn’t shirk from laying bare the injustice and abuse of power on show. And it’s all told in a perfectly-paced story that sticks the knife in at just the right moment, lets you rest, think you might be ok and then twists that fucker in again. Alexis Henderson is a wonderful writer and, given that this is her debut novel, I’ll no doubt be reading everything she publishes forevermore.
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