Catching a Witch

Written by Heidi Eljarbo
Review by Kate Braithwaite

When Clara Dahl returns to the small Norwegian coastal town she grew up in, she takes great pleasure in being reunited with old friends and reacquainting herself with town life. The daughter of a minister, she has had an unusual life for a 17th-century woman. She is well-educated and well-travelled. The happiness of her return to her seaside home sours with the arrival in the town of Angus Hill. Hill is an Englishman, said to be an apprentice of Matthew Hopkins, known as the Witch-finder General, a man responsible for the death of numerous Englishwomen during the 1640s. Hill, like his mentor, is determined to find and root out witchcraft in all its forms.

The novel begins a little slowly, but the arrival of Hill signals a welcome shift in pace. Two innocent women are ‘tested’ as witches and quickly die in the process. Clara’s close friend Bess, a midwife and healer, inevitably attracts Angus Hill’s interest. To save her, Clara and her friends must battle against time and a community seemingly sucked in by Hill’s rhetoric. A welcome sub-plot with two mean-spirited twin daughters of an important local family keeps the action flowing, and the threatening presence of the town’s reclusive gravedigger adds another interesting character to the story.

At times the language used is a little modern and the twins’ storyline is not as well resolved as it might be. But this is an enjoyable read, strong on its portrayal of witch-hunting and sympathetic and interesting in its consideration of women’s lives in the period, particularly with the tensions between medicine and healing, religion and superstition, and men and women’s lives and education.