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Review: Everyone Knows Your Mother Is a Witch, by Rivka Galchen
FSG, 2021. 271 pp. $27

Life feels fragile in the German Duchy of Württemberg, for it’s 1618, and not only does plague stalk the land, the Thirty Years War brings the passage of armies and their attendant depredations. But in the village of Leonberg, these afflictions only lap around the edges. What really matters is that Katharina Kepler is accused of witchcraft.

Katharina is an old woman, a grandmother who puts more faith in her beloved cow, Chamomile, than in people, young children excepted. Known for herbal remedies and her strange way of talking — she seldom answers a question directly, and asks in turn those that nobody else would dream of — she’s a busybody. She thinks nothing of bursting into someone’s house, whether to bring a gift or tell them how they should be living. The Yiddish word nudnik comes to mind.

She’s the sort who has an opinion about everything, and if you’re really lucky, you’ll get to hear it. She has a way of summing people up in insulting terms: “The crowd of them looked like a pack of dull troubadours who, come morning, have made off with all the butter.” Finally, her son, Johannes, is Imperial Mathematician, and Katharina’s neighbors are always asking her if he’ll cast their horoscopes. Apparently, he knows things about the heavens and writes books. These are suspicious activities, especially if the desired horoscope isn’t forthcoming.

Johannes Kepler, who framed the laws of planetary motion, in 1620, portrait artist unknown (courtesy Wikimedia Commons; public domain)

From this eccentric yet harmless profile emerges the most incredible folklore. The good citizens of Leonberg believe, or come to believe, that Katharina has the power to poison, make people lame, pass through locked doors, cause livestock to sicken and die, and consort with the devil. How they arrive at these fancies — and why — makes a brilliant narrative, at once chilling and hilarious, absurd, yet with the ring of absolute truth.

In a novel like this, especially in the first-person narratives Galchen deploys, voice matters greatly. Here’s Katharina’s, on one of her favorite subjects, the failings of the local authorities:

I know you’ll think it’s not wise… but I’d like to say something about Ducal Governor Einhorn, whom I prefer to call the False Unicorn. He’s not from this area. He was brought in by the marvelous Duchess Sybille, may she rest in peace. The False Unicorn was to defer to Sybille’s judgment in all matters. Then Sybille died so suddenly. The Duke was distracted — with counting soldiers, signing treaties, commissioning lace shirt cuffs.… and so the False Unicorn usurped powers that should have reverted to the Duke. He began to puff up, Einhorn did. He wore his hair longer. He had a new collar made.… I will say that the False Unicorn looks like an unwell river otter in a doublet.

You might suppose, as I did at first, that Galchen owes a debt to Kafka. Not quite. In Kafka’s bureaucratic nightmares, the hand that wields power remains obscure, sometimes invisible. Here, you see the workings, or many of them; more importantly, you see their paranoid, angry underpinnings. Kafka is said to have read his work out loud to friends, causing general laughter. I’ve never laughed at Kafka — maybe that says something about me — but I did at Galchen. Until, that is, the accusations gather steam.

Everyone Knows is a feminist statement, for we have a free-thinking woman blamed for heresies, mostly by other women, interestingly. It’s as though they resent her for doing what they’ve never let themselves even think of. But though misogyny, including the self-inflicted variety, has historically fed attempts to suppress witchcraft, there’s much more here. Galchen has delved into the paranoia that produces conspiracy theories, and her reconstruction of their origins is spot on. Life has disappointed them, hasn’t granted what the conspiracy theorist assumes he or she deserves and, by God, someone will pay. If that’s not a diagnosis of a sickness that threatens this country’s social, cultural, and political fabric, I don’t know what is.

Some readers will find that this novel ends abruptly, and maybe it does. But that doesn’t trouble me. Galchen’s less concerned with what happens than its origins and legacy; she’s not so focused on the plot, and I accept that. More bothersome is the language, entirely brilliant, yet with occasional lapses in diction. Images like troubadours stealing butter or an otter in a doublet strike my ear perfectly, so I’m not prepared for modern idioms like okay, open up, be fine with, or share your story. If Galchen, a careful writer, is trying to suggest that these seventeenth-century Germans are just like us, she’s proven that in other, deeper ways.

And it is precisely those ways that make Everyone Knows Your Mother Is a Witch required reading.

Disclaimer: I obtained my reading copy of this book from the public library.