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Review: Everyone Knows Your Mother is a Witch by Rivka Galchen

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By Simon Demetriou

Who wants to read an old lady story?

About 12 years after the events of Everyone Knows Your Mother is a Witch, Simon, the neighbour tasked with writing down Katharina Kepler’s account of the events leading up to and through her trial for witchcraft, takes the manuscript to sell at the Frankfurt Book Fair. He doesn’t get any takers. An Englishman on the next stall gives Simon some advice: ‘People don’t like an old lady story, you know?’ The year of this fictionalised fair would have been around 1633. One of the questions raised by Everyone Knows Your Mother is a Witch is whether the intervening 400 or so years have seen readers come around to a book with ‘an old lady front and centre’.

The old lady in question is the mother of a famous son, Johannes Kepler, imperial mathematician to Holy Roman Emperor Rudolf II and the discoverer of the laws of planetary motion. The tale of a genius astronomer building the legal defence of his falsely accused mother sounds like the plot of a novel. This isn’t it. Instead, the central figures of this novel are two old people: Katharina herself, a widow condemned for not ‘withering’ after her husband’s presumed death, and who instead lives a vigorous life devoted to the care of her own and others’ children, as well as her beloved cow, Chamomile. Then there is Simon, a deeply antisocial saddler who develops a friendship with Katharina over games of backgammon and who takes on the role of her legal guardian when she is accused of witchcraft in 1615. Indeed, it was the real-life version of Simon – a man by the name of Veit Schumacher who eventually asked to be dismissed as Katharina Kepler’s legal guardian – who first turned Rivka Galchen’s mind towards writing this novel.

Interestingly, while we might – and I do – applaud and enjoy the power with which Galchen makes the marginal central in her story, the characters themselves, especially Simon, want nothing more than to remain marginal. Centrality is thrust upon them: Katharina due to the cynicism, superstition, suggestibility and greed of those who line up to accuse her over the six years of her trial; and Simon by virtue of his desire to ‘stand by’, which brings to light his inner conflict between the impulse to remain a bystander, and the wish to stand by his friend. In the end, this ‘old lady story’ is a moving reminder of the human tendency to want to see monsters where none exist, a lesson Galchen delivers with a stunning combination of tenderness and wit.

 

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