Content warning: this book review will discuss domestic abuse, sexism, and briefly suicide.
There are certain books that might not sit right with readers for a variety of reasons. They may be tough to get through but are worth it in the end. I encountered a novel like this after reading Hour of the Witch by Chris Bohjalian because it deals with domestic abuse, sexism, and lots of exposition. It took a lot of patience, yet reader, it was rewarding.
Hour of the Witch is about a young Puritan woman who’s trying to leave her cruel husband. Mary Deerfield is 24 years old and beautiful. In England, she would’ve gotten a lot of suitors, but in the New World (specifically 1662 Boston), she’s the second wife of Thomas Deerfield – an abusive and powerful man. When Thomas, prone to drunken rage, purposely drives a three-tined fork into the back of Mary’s hand, she believes that enough is enough and that she must divorce him to save her life. However, in a world where every neighbor is watching for signs of the devil, a woman like Mary – a woman who harbors secret desires and finds it difficult to tolerate the hypocrisy of so many men in the colony – soon finds herself the object of suspicion and rumor. When tainted objects are discovered buried in the ground, when a boy whom Mary has been treating with herbs and simple dies, and when the boy’s sister – a servant in the Deerfield household – runs out of the home screaming, Mary must not only escape her marriage, but also the gallows.
Hour of the Witch is the third Chris Bojhalian novel that I’ve read, and I think it’s his best one so far. While other books – The Flight Attendant and Secrets of Eden – have their advantages, this one has the highest of the highs, while having the fewest issues.
Much like Bohjalian’s other female protagonists, Mary is a three-dimensional character with desires, but she is forced by the Puritan society to maintain her duty as a wife despite the circumstances. In a way, Mary reminds me of Cassie from The Flight Attendant. Even though Mary is a more respectable person, both are trying to clear their names from crimes they didn’t commit. I wouldn’t be surprised if Bohjalian made that decision after the success of the first season of The Flight Attendant television show.
In addition, I enjoyed the world building. Since the book takes place in the Puritan Massachusetts colony, it constantly reminds readers of the values that they held dear as a community like moral and religious earnestness as well as predestination. This context aids them in understanding why the characters would’ve had major concerns over Mary’s attempt to divorce her husband. It doesn’t help that accusations of witchcraft were becoming prevalent when the novel began. The language was developed too as it uses a lot of the phrases, which would’ve been common during that time like the “thee,” “thou,” “helpmeet,” and “white meat” (the latter as an insult for being stupid) even though I was taken out of it when one of the magistrates said, “Thou art serious?”
Bohjalian characterizes this historical period so thoroughly that readers can easily understand why certain characters would think Mary is a witch. People were already suspicious of her because she was barren, and she was part of an influential family in Boston. Her father shipped goods from the Old World to the New one and vice versa and personally knew one of the magistrates.
Many reviewers have noted that the first half of the book is slow. I noticed this too as well as how it’s structured like the Greek play Antigone by Sophocles. A good chunk of the first part involves a lot of exposition and the aforementioned world building. Then, after Mary leaves her husband, a bunch of people come to her parents’ home and beg her to reconsider. This reminded me of how the characters in Antigone like the advisors and the son Haemon tell Creon that he should change his mind and bury Antigone’s brother Polynices who fought against Thebes.
After her divorce petition was denied, Mary decides to take the matter into her own hands before it’s too late. This is where the book picks up because there were many options of what could happen. During the second half, I knew certain things would occur, but some caught me off guard. Readers will have to be patient while going through it, for this is one aspect that makes the book worth it.
Another thing that readers will need to know before picking up this title is that there’s a handful of instances of domestic abuse. Many of these involve Thomas – Mary’s husband – insulting and inflicting harsh punishment onto her. These were hard to get through, for I’m not a fan of so much abuse in one novel. I can handle books and movies that have that one scene, but much more of similar intensity can be too much for me. Moreover, that can cross the line into suffering for suffering’s sake as well as torture porn easily. However, Bojhalian always focuses on what Mary’s feeling in those moments and finding her strength to carry on. This is not surprising since he dealt with that same topic in Secrets of Eden with nuance, especially with why the wife went back to her abusive husband after having a restraining order on him. Hour of the Witch does go into Mary’s suffering for a brief time as she contemplates suicide, yet after receiving a message in the hearth, she resolves herself to take control of the situation and seek a way to leave her cruel husband.
Additionally, the novel made me feel a bunch of emotions, mainly angry, since it tackles domestic abuse as well as sexism. The magistrates’ logic on how one could be a witch during Mary’s trial was so absurd that I was ready to punch a good majority of them. (Side note: making the youngest magistrate the misogynistic one is a splendid touch.) I wanted to do the same thing to the authorities who didn’t take the female characters’ testimonies seriously. Of course, Bohjalian did this on purpose because he knew a contemporary audience would most likely react the same way I did. He acknowledges this usually with Mary saying something like, “This is absurd!”
Luckily, if I ever felt mad after listening to sections of Hour of the Witch, I could watch this wonderful documentary on a witch trial.
In addition, the book has one of the most satisfying endings that I’ve ever read. All I will say is that if one has doubts on continuing with this novel, keep going, it’s worth it all the way.
I listened to the audiobook, and it’s one of those instances, in which I would recommend readers to look at the physical book. Grace Experience narrates it along with a full cast although the latter are relegated to reading official documents, and they do an effective job in embodying the main characters while sounding accurate to the Puritan era. That’s why I’m not listing everyone who’s on the audiobook. In addition, I don’t know if those records are real or made up for the story; I’ll have to do more research.
Experience (Bohjalian’s daughter) needs no introduction as she did part of the narration for The Flight Attendant. She blends a contemporary and period voice well. At first, I wasn’t sure about this take because it felt a little too modern, but I realized that she’s portraying a third-person narrator. This gives more leeway in how she interprets the story. At the same time, a lot of the characters sound similar. It wasn’t to the point that I couldn’t identify which was which (no pun intended), yet it would’ve been a more effective performance had Experience did. Additionally, she eunicates stuff in a way that feels monotone. By herself, it’s not bad, but when I heard the other narrators read their small parts, there was more emotion in their voices. Even though it’s a solid performance, I simply wanted Experience to emote more to match what the characters, especially Mary, were going through.
All in all, Hour of the Witch by Chris Bohjalian is the best book that I’ve read from that author. The author does a great job with recreating the Puritan world through the language and embedding their values into the story. In addition, Mary Deerfield is another wonderful female protagonist who I rooted for throughout the novel. The novel rightfully made me angry about what she had to go through. I would recommend the physical book to those who like reading stories about witch trials, the Puritans, and how people get out of domestic abuse situations. Sometimes, a book is tough on purpose, so it’s good to be patient because it might be worth it.
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