This book was such a pleasant surprise! I should say immediately that when I received it as part of my subscription to ‘How Novel’, which sends you a mystery book each month, I was a bit turned off by the ridiculous and goofy title: A Witch in Time.
The UK paperback version of it that I received had a lovely cover with intricate gold designs but the title…my initial reaction was to roll my eyes. I personally struggle with titles so – I get it. Titles are hard. And I know that titles should, ideally, from a marketing perspective, reveal something about the content of the book to those who haven’t read it. But to title a book about a time traveling witch…’A Witch in Time’? It’s actually a little bit insulting to this rather well written, well researched and overall interesting novel – to give it such a goofy title based on a bad pun! I am convinced the author did not pick this silly title!
That being said – I really enjoyed A Witch in Time (arg! I can barely write it!), which tells the story of a woman reincarnated in four different time periods (ranging from the 1890s through to the mid 2000s) and cursed to relive a doomed love affair in each. A lot of the book is about art (we meet several artists, painters, photographers, writers) and also about breaking the (sometime self-destructive) patterns of behavior that we find ourselves in – more on that in a second.
One of the things that impressed me most about this book overall was that the author Constance Sayers had clearly done so much research into the physical world of those four different time frames and locales (the heady glitter of late 19th century Paris and 1930’s Hollywood, to the dry heat and bohemian townships of the New Mexico desert). Not only that but she managed to tell a fairly ‘straightforward’ and coherent narrative while jumping back and forth in time. Sayers, from a bit of research online, seems to be a very accomplished person in the world of journalism, so I feel like she might have approached this structural element of the book with a bit of a journalist’s eye for ordering fragments into an easily digestible whole. I never once felt lost.
Additionally, she seems interested in each era and – I’m not sure how to put this – the ‘spirit’ of that era, for lack of a better word. In every era that our main character is reincarnated into – she comes into contact with prominent artists of that age. Whether that be screwball comedy film directors in the 1930’s, to counter cultural musicians playing dreamy folk tunes in the 1970’s. I loved this element and also enjoyed how one of the characters – who is always reincarnated with her – is an artist in all these different eras and he feels drawn towards different topics and different styles depending on what is trendy. It makes him seem like a fickle character, easily blown about by external influences, which suits the story well.
I was really engrossed in the book overall and I’ve not felt that way about a novel in a long time. I ‘couldn’t put it down’. That’s really a testament to Sayers’ storytelling that, even though I knew where we were headed, I wanted to experience each new era! We also get to meet some ‘demons’ in this book and they always, in each timeframe, hang out with the artists. For instance, they mingle with Toulouse-Lautrec in 19th century Paris and set up a recording studio in the 1970’s. I like that suggestion: that artists are always chilling with the devil haha. And there are all sorts of fun references and allusions throughout, such as the main character’s name in her first lifetime: Juliet. (What better name could you pick for a teenager in a doomed romance, right? It’s a bit on the nose but it works!)
The writing here is strong too. I tend to prefer more ‘lyrical’ writing as a preference, but Sayers’ prose is solid and effective, full of great, precise descriptions.
BUT I would say that the story overall never rises to excellent because it doesn’t lean heavily enough into the themes, especially towards the end – when our main character tries to break the ‘cycle’ of the curse, so she won’t be reincarnated again. Without giving anything away, I think the ending didn’t have much emotional impact. It would have been stronger if Sayers had managed to tie it in somehow with this idea that, if we don’t stop ourselves, patterns repeat. Without this (or some other!) thematic layer on top of all the plot and magic stuff – the ending felt a little empty. What is the book actually about? Of course it can – and probably should – be about multiple things. But I just think that some of the more interesting ideas suggested by the concept of the book remain unexplored.
I would also say that another weakness of the book is some of the backstory about the main character’s family which we learn about later in the story. This elaborate (and pretty over-the-top) backstory element seems to have been a later addition to the manuscript (the way I read it) because it doesn’t seem necessary and it feels a touch too dark alongside the rest of the tone. It could easily have been lost.
Overall though I really enjoyed this novel a lot and would without question read more by Sayers. It was full of great historical details and the concept was intriguing. Her next book is called: The Ladies of the Secret Circus (an infinitely better title!!). This is ‘commercial fiction’ at its best and also quite honestly it’s great historical fiction too. It’s got some dark moments but for me this is a ‘beach read’ – engrossing, fast-paced and with an unusual love story.
Do you think you’d like the book too? What do you think of this trend towards so many ‘witch’ centered books being published now? Witches are always in vogue in my mind, but it’s definitely been a trend lately. What are some of your favorites?
‘Madeira Mondays’ is a series of blog posts exploring 18th century history and historical fiction. Follow the blog for a new post every other Monday and thanks for reading!
PS Today’s Featured Image is by Camille Pissarro and is, fittingly, Boulevard Montmartre, created in 1897 (the time and place of the titular witch’s first lifetime in the book!)
And finally, a quick announcement! If you live in Edinburgh then you know that August is festival season. This year I’ll be performing at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, for one night (two performances!) at the Scottish Storytelling Centre on the Royal Mile. I’m joining the fantastic Loud Poets as a guest at their Fringe Show, and can’t wait since they always put on great, entertaining, well produced and engaging shows – especially at the fringe. Their shows have been described as the ‘pop music’ of poetry – a description they wear proudly. Like great pop, the poetry they feature is often fun, engaging and much more complex than meets the eye!
This will be my first live, in-person performance in almost two years and I’m really looking forward to it.
If you’re in Edinburgh and fancy coming along, I’m one of the three featured poets at their shows on Aug 13th: there’s a 7 pm show and an 8:45 show. Tickets link here. Here’s a list of all the poets who’ll be performing on all the nights! 🙂
Thanks for reading and maybe see you there!