Tuesday, June 19, 2012

A Discovery of Witches by Debra Harkness, reviewed by Charlene Jones

Viking Penguin Group, New York, July 2011, 579 pages, $33.50

      My inner critic often behaves like a Vampire, entering the life’s blood of some author via their book then sucking that blood out with carping criticism. It’s true and I admit it.
        I admit to the Vampire within just as Matthew, the protagonist in Debra Harkness’ A Discovery of Witches, reveals to his beloved Diana that he is a Vampire. Problem is she’s a witch. Nevertheless, against all the best of beastly conventions, these two, Witch and Vampire, fall in love.
      My inner Vampire was quiet about that. A story of love gone wrong, a kind of West Side Story for Succubi, held much promise.
                However, the reader quickly realizes Debra Harkness’ considerable ability with history leads her to indulge herself with endless minutia. Worse, repetitive descriptions of what clothes people change into flow through the story. I’ll save you the suspense: Diana, a modern girl, favors black stretch pants, and black jackets, tops and blouses. No surprise for a witch destined to fall for a vampire.
      Harkness also renders account after account of what each character ate, how they ate together, what they did after eating, such as going for a walk or who washed up the dishes. Now including nurturance in a story about Vampires expands the theme, but rather than serving to whet a reader’s appetite for the next plot development, the food and endless eating details stagnate the action.
        And when Matthew’s more conventional Vampiric need to feed results in a midnight flesh frenzy on some nameless human, the reader feels a slight shock of revulsion. Intentional? Perhaps. But the reader feels no compassion for poor Matthew’s need to fly off and drink human blood. Sorry. No compassion whatever drips from my inner Vampire’s incisors.
   Now of course time is of the essence whenever Vampires are concerned: Daylight? Broadlight? Darkness? The combo of history as the inner theme and time itself as the larger thread ought to deliver a deep tale but the reader’s more likely to simply curse herself for getting lost in this 578-page tome.
        Harkness faces us from the back jacket, beautiful, clearly intelligent, her academic credentials testifying to her historic prowess. History does dot the pages, but it does so as name dropping: Matthew as friends with George Washington, Matthew as friends with Christopher Marlow, Matthew as... you get the idea. Instead of weaving the history details into a necessary part of the plot, Harkness drops them in, like frills on the edge of Bela Luigosi’s cuffs. 
      It is said that those who do not remember their history are doomed to repeat it. In this case, Ms. Harkness makes the reader repeat it … endlessly.

Charlene Jones has two books of poetry to her credit, as well as several individual poems published in many North American magazines, and is at work on her first novel. In addition, Charlene writes for the Musselman’s Lake Residents Association website (here), is the Musselman Lake Correspondent for the Stouffville Free Press. You can read some of Charlene’s poetry here and here, reviews here and here, and a short essay here.

See Brian Henry's schedule here, including writing workshops and creative writing courses in Kingston, Peterborough, Toronto, Mississauga, Brampton, Georgetown, Milton, Oakville, Burlington, St. Catharines, Hamilton, Dundas, Kitchener, Guelph, London, Woodstock, Orangeville, Newmarket, Barrie, Gravenhurst, Sudbury, Muskoka, Peel, Halton, the GTA, Ontario and beyond.

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