The Witch of Cologne

Written by Tobsha Learner
Review by Sarah L. Johnson

This first historical by Australian playwright and novelist Learner has a number of things in its favor: an original setting, an intriguing heroine, and a completely unpredictable plotline. In 1665 Deutz, the Jewish Quarter just outside Cologne, Ruth bas Elazar Saul goes against her father’s wishes to practice midwifery. Her remarkable success is due to her previous training in Amsterdam, a more enlightened city, where she had fled years earlier to escape an arranged marriage. The Inquisition’s interest in her has less to do with her occupation than her birth, for her late mother, a Sephardic Jew, had made a mortal foe in a Dominican friar whose advances she spurned. Imprisoned for witchcraft, Ruth attracts the interest of Detlef von Tennen, a Catholic cleric who secretly yearns to embrace the revolutionary beliefs creeping across Europe from Holland. When Detlef abandons his position to throw in his lot with Ruth, he takes on not just her enemies but some new ones as well.

The author wins points for realism in choosing historically accurate, refreshingly unromantic character names and in depicting religious persecution vividly, though her gruesome torture scenes are not for the squeamish. The novel’s philosophical grasp is not as strong as the author perhaps intends, and the fantastic elements – such as the wraithlike demon Lilith, whose presence midwives guard against – seem to serve little purpose. But the novel succeeds wonderfully as an epic tale of star-crossed lovers who knew what they were giving up to go against popular beliefs, but chose to do so anyway.