Hexenhaus by Nikki McWatters

Friday, December 2, 2016

A powerful novel about three young women caught in the hysteria of their own times.

In 1628, Veronica and her brother flee for their lives into the German woods after their father is burned at the stake.

At the dawn of the eighteenth century, Scottish maid Katherine is lured into political dissent after her parents are butchered for their beliefs.

In present-day Australia, Paisley navigates her way through the burning torches of small-town gossip after her mother’s new-age shop comes under scrutiny.

While I'm not a big reader of historical fiction, Hexenhaus intrigued me. Hysteria! Witchcraft! Three interconnected stories! It's dark and compelling, and once I started reading, I had trouble putting it down. Knowing its basis in real events made this novel especially disturbing - Veronica, Katherine and some of their family members and other characters are based on real historical figures, and the horrifying 'hexenhaus' (a witch prison, where Veronica's parents are killed in the novel) is based on a place in Bamberg where witch trials were conducted and about a thousand people died. It's awful.

The strongest parts of Hexenhaus are Veronica's and Katherine's stories; the historical fiction seems well-researched, reads easily, and has a strong sense of time and place. While Paisley was a likeable protagonist and her town felt well-drawn, I never quite bought her story; the townspeople's horror about witchcraft isn't something I could imagine in present-day Australia. If their loathing of Paisley's mother was instead motivated by some other social difference (cultural or socioeconomic, perhaps) or financial goal (like some other businessperson wanting the prime real estate of the new-age shop), then it would have been easier to understand. I still enjoyed Paisley's story, but it didn't gel quite as well as the other two. Veronica was my favourite character, and I found her story the most compelling, though Katherine's voice was engaging.

I love the narrative through-line that connects Veronica's, Katherine's and Paisley's stories, and felt that the three worked well together. I think this novel will appeal most to readers of historical fiction. And it is straight-up historical fiction - those put to trial as witches are mostly politically inconvenient, or killed for the economic gain of the witch finder, as it was in reality. No witchcraft here. It merges the historical well with the contemporary, though I would've been more intrigued to read Paisley's story had it been set at a different point in Australian history - perhaps during the early 20th century, when a fear of witches in a rural town might be more realistic. Paisley's story adds a certain lightness - while Veronica's and Katherine's stories are full of death and suffering and tragedy and injustice, ultimately there is hope, through Paisley (it'll make sense when you read the novel). This is a bit of a spoiler alert, but if you're worried Hexenhaus ends too tragically for you to want to read it, rest assured the ending is uplifting. For at least one character.

Hexenhaus is a dark but enjoyable novel which really shines in the historical sections. Well worth a read if you're particularly interested in witch trials, and a nuanced exploration of mass hysteria.

Hexenhaus on the publisher's website.
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