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Hour of the Witch


Hour of the Witch

Chris Bohjalian has been one of the best writers in the country for decades, seemingly able to switch genres with ease and never failing to produce top-notch literary fiction. So it is wonderful to see him become a household name thanks to the HBO Max series adaptation of his 2018 book, THE FLIGHT ATTENDANT.

HOUR OF THE WITCH, set during Puritan times in 1662 Boston, is another memorable and intense novel from Bohjalian. It takes place during the infamous Salem Witch Trials, where any seemingly “odd” behavior by a female could be twisted into being an act of witchery that would lead to her death.

This is the world in which our protagonist, 24-year-old Mary Deerfield, lives. She is the second wife of the much older Thomas Deerfield. To say that Thomas is a brutal and insensitive husband would be a gross understatement. Mary knows that God has given her an excellent mind despite what he may allege. She is going to require every bit of wit, wisdom and faith she can muster to get her out of this abusive marriage, as divorce is not frequently upheld by the powers that be.

"...a brilliant, intense and extremely satisfying work by a master of literary fiction who just seems to be getting better and better."

Along with her husband’s abuse, Mary must deal with Catherine, their family servant, who is so envious of Mary’s station with Thomas that she will do almost anything to make her look bad. Mary is a curious young woman who wants to explore the world outside of Boston and enjoys escaping inside a book of poetry or fiction.

Even though Mary faithfully attends church with her family, there are still aspersions cast about her and her relationship with women like the elder Constance Winston, who is whispered to dabble in the dark arts. At one point, Catherine discovers a symbol carved into the front doorway of the home and some obscure objects buried within --- like the trio of three-pronged forks that were gifted to them from Mary’s parents. It is one of these very forks that Thomas drunkenly plunges into Mary’s hand during one of his nightly ale-infused attacks on her, nearly breaking her hand in the process. This act is unforgiveable in Mary’s eyes, and she becomes determined to file for divorce and return to her parents.

One of the main sources of tension between Mary and Thomas is her seeming inability to get pregnant. Is she indeed barren, or have things just not worked out for them? Could the alleged “spell” that was cast upon their home be responsible for this, or do darker intentions exist? These are all major points at the trial in front of the town tribunal as the novel takes a legal turn, but with Puritanical sensibilities. Thomas never claims that he thinks Mary is a witch, even though others allude to that during the testimony. But he does misrepresent the fork incident, saying that she cut herself with the tea kettle.

Mary must handle the situation very carefully as she realizes that there may be a fate worse than marriage to Thomas --- being hung as a witch. Without revealing all the juicy details, the case is not decided in Mary’s favor, but she is sent back to live with Thomas once again rather than endure any further investigation about her supposed involvement in witchery. Mary, though, vows to get revenge on everyone involved, especially her wicked and smug husband. Thus begins the second part of the novel, “The Book of the Witch.”

Here the story reads like an unputdownable revenge thriller as readers will quickly become enthralled with the ingenious plot that Mary has set in motion. The ideal result would involve her being freed permanently from Thomas and whisked away to a life outside of Boston in the company of the young gentleman she truly fancies, Henry Simmons. Of course, everyone knows that even the best-laid plans never come out exactly as expected, and once again Mary will face the town tribunal, this time fighting for her life as her enemies come forward with what they are convinced is proof of her being a witch. It will be up to the readers to decide for themselves if they believe this claim to be true.

I hope that HOUR OF THE WITCH will be made into its own miniseries and achieve a comparable level of success as “The Flight Attendant.” It is a brilliant, intense and extremely satisfying work by a master of literary fiction who just seems to be getting better and better.

Reviewed by Ray Palen on May 7, 2021

Hour of the Witch
by Chris Bohjalian