The Last Witchfinder, by James Morrow

A woman armed with the truth fights against her fundamentalist father
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The Independent Culture

Some writers defy categorisation because the comfortable repetitions of genre fiction are alien to their sense of urgency. James Morrow writes in order to tell us things: to admonish us about our coming destruction of the world, or about the battle between reason and superstition. Sometimes his work has used science-fiction tropes, but only as the way to get things done; what he is, deep down, is a satirist and moralist.

The Last Witchfinder sets its cards on the table with the identity of its narrator: Newton's Principia Mathematica, who tells us all about books and their destinies. The Principia also gossips about a long-standing feud with the Malleus Maleficarum: Kramer and Sprenger's notorious manual for the identification, torture and extermination of witches.

Jennet is the daughter of witchfinder Walter Stearne, an ambitious dolt with a streak of sadism disguised as zeal. His decision to pursue informations laid against her favourite aunt sets Jennet on a mission not only to defeat her father, but to destroy his work.

This she pursues on two continents for much of a long life, with the help of a traveller in bottled monstrosities, native Americans, and her young lover Ben Franklin.

At the novel's climax, she sets herself up to be tried simply to disprove witchcraft's existence as part of her defence. One of Morrow's strengths is that he makes us love Jennet as much for being an arrogant crank as a selfless struggler after truth.

This is also the story of her brother, Dunstan, drawn into his father's trade, who becomes a monster, partly through betraying his vocation as an artist, partly for love of a particularly evil woman. His wife, Abigail, one of the "bewitched" girls of Salem, is portrayed here as someone addicted to attention and prepared to torture, kill and lie to get more or it. Superstition and unreason destroy those who pursue them.

This is a novel set less in the actual 17th and 18th centuries than in our ideas of them; Morrow scorns accuracy along with subtlety. He needs Aunt Isobel to burn for maximum effect, in the face of historical fact about the execution of English witches, so burn she does as a brazen exception.

What makes this satirical version of the struggle against fundamentalism so powerful is Morrow's scenes of natural beauty or urban squalor. These have the scent of real wild flowers, the squish of real mud and dung underfoot.

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