Back in the late nineties, younger-me was obsessed with reading every novel about witches I could find. (Don’t get me wrong, I still like witch books, but there are just so many now!) The Heart of a Witch, published in 1999, would have appeared right smack in the middle of this obsession, and yet somehow I never discovered it back then, when I was first devouring Anne Rice’s The Witching Hour and Elizabeth Hand’s Waking the Moon. I found it, instead, at a wonderfully labyrinthine used bookstore just a few weeks ago.
The Heart of a Witch tells the story of twins Shelley and Kipling (their dad’s an English teacher), growing up in the small town of Green Hollow in upstate New York, in what seems to be about the fifties or early sixties. They live across the street from a beautiful Victorian inn, the Lockley Arms — around which mysterious occurrences seem to gather. In their teens, both siblings wind up working there, and realize the inn’s regulars are actually a coven of witches. They ask to join, and their lives change forever.
Judith Hawkes draws us in with atmospheric writing —
Familiar as the house became to me later on, I could never make my knowledge of it match the memory of that first visit. It was as if that childhood prank took me to some corner of my imagination so oblique that I have never again found my way back to it.
Except for Kip and me, the place was empty. It seemed on that occasion to contain countless rooms, many more than could possibly have fit within its physical dimensions. I remember rooms submerged in quivering bluegreen darkness, canopies hovering like restless ghosts above white beds, other rooms warm with lamplight and easy chairs. My trespasser’s jitters evaporated as I wandered over polished floors that reflected yet more rooms, lamplit or moonlit, above whose depths I skimmed like some airy inhabitant of a dream. In the darkened top of the tower I stood at a window and looked down on our house across the street, seeing it pale and diminished, huddled in its cluster of trees. It looked desperately far away, like something existing in another dimension.
— and with a structure I generally love and don’t see often enough: the novel that starts following a protagonist as a child and sows the seeds of weirdness gradually, yet inexorably, as the character matures. Hawkes does make an odd decision with point-of-view. Sometimes the story is told in first person by Shelley. Sometimes, however, Hawkes switches to third person, which doesn’t seem to be necessary, since this point-of-view mainly follows Shelley too (though it does offer us glimpses into Kip’s mind at times). It’s very clearly done intentionally and is not a mistake. I just couldn’t figure out why. I kept wondering if maybe the third-person narrative was being told by another character, possibly the high priestess, but this was never explained.
While reading, though, I began to realize I didn’t actually like Shelley much. She has no real sense of self, except as compared with Kip. She’s wishy-washy. I once read, and I don’t remember where, a sentence along the lines of “He is the victim of the last person he spoke to,” and this is Shelley to a tee. She blows around like a leaf on the wind, one minute believing the coven is evil because of a rumor or something she read in a library book, the next minute certain they’re good, and back and forth and back and forth ad nauseam. Most frustratingly, she cannot seem to actually ask anyone a question when she’s wondering about something, instead jumping to a conclusion and acting rashly on it. But the writing kept me going. And, too, I hoped for some growth from Shelley as her story progressed.
The twins’ first year with the coven unfolds, with beautiful descriptions of the seasonal rituals along the way, while at the same time they’re dealing with family illness, school, sexual awakening (note to sensitive readers: a lot of the sex is taboo), and general coming of age. And then there’s the spooky hooded figure Shelley keeps seeing, lurking in the shadows. Who is this figure, and are they connected to the coven, and/or to the child kidnapper menacing Green Hollow?
I was greatly enjoying all this, and the books to which I was comparing The Heart of a Witch in my head were long-time favorites. And then … the ending. I hated it. Hated it. I was originally going to knock the book down to three stars for it, but I have to admit that it wasn’t bad writing, so I’m bumping it back up a little. It’s all there from the beginning: the foreshadowing, the symbolism, the flaws in Shelley’s character that contribute to what happens. Hawkes executed it just fine. I just don’t like it. It felt like the book ended with a door slammed in my face, which hurt because I’d loved it so much up until that point.
I also have to admit that the me of 1999 would have almost certainly liked this better. I had much more patience with heroines like this, since I often felt sort of undefined myself. I had more tolerance for this type of ending, too, finding it darkly romantic rather than simply painful. So what I wish I could do is go back in time and give this book to my younger self. And then when I returned from my trip, I’m pretty sure I’d find The Heart of a Witch still on my bookshelf, much-battered, because younger-me would have enshrined it among the “keepers.”