The Limits of Enchantment


Fern Cullen is brought up by Mammy, a midwife and healer, in a small English village. When we meet Fern, she is listening to a pregnant woman’s stomach, rather as a test of her coming of age as Mammy’s assistant. She concurs with Mammy’s pronouncement that the baby will be a girl, and when the baby is born just a short time later, they are proved correct. Fern values all that Mammy has taught her, but is puzzled by Mammy’s refusal to divulge her own background. Fern is an unworldly young woman, due both to Mammy’s strict upbringing and to ostracism by local children. When she and Mammy find their situation becoming precarious, Fern must adapt to the outside world quickly. Although Joyce sets The Limits of Enchantment in the 1960s (a group of rather shiftless hippies plays a part), it is a timeless story set in the claustrophobia of a small-minded village, and leavened by just a hint of magic. It might just as easily have been set in the 1600s or the 1700s.

Fern has some prescient advice for us in a prologue: “If I could tell you this in a single setting, then you might believe all of it, even the strangest part. Even the part about what I found in the hedgerow. If I could unwind this story in a single spool, or peel it like an apple the way Mammy would with her penknife in one unbroken coil, juice a-glistening on the blade, then you might bite in without objection.” You can feel the power of Fern’s storytelling, but mind you pay heed to her counsel. Halfway through the book, I stopped reading for the night. The next day, it took a bit of effort to fall back under her spell. I was the loser for not taking Fern’s advice seriously. Learn from my mistake, and enjoy this captivating tale in one sitting.



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