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Review: Hour of the Witch, by Chris Bohjalian
Doubleday, 2021. 400 pp. $29

Mary Deerfield leads what many people in Boston in 1663 would call an enviable life—though they’d never admit it, because envy is a sin. Her father, a leading merchant, imports many useful items like furniture, cloth, and cutlery. Mary’s husband, much older than herself, is a prosperous miller, a man others look up to. However, she’s still childless at twenty-four, which arouses suspicions of possession by Satan.

But Mary’s only possessed by qualities a woman must not have—a strong will informed by intelligence and desire. She dares want a better life than the one her brute of a husband allows: he beats her mercilessly, and his idea of sexual relations is equally violent and shaming. For every insult he endures, or thinks he endures, Mary pays; and when he’s drunk, which is often, he imagines slights everywhere.

One of the many reasons I’m glad I didn’t live in seventeenth-century Boston.

Worse, he knows how to dissemble. Though familiar at the tavern, he’s never earned the constable’s reprimand for drunken behavior or punishment in the stocks. He beats Mary in private and makes up outlandish excuses when friends or family ask about the occasional bruise that shows. She wonders whether their young servant, Catherine, sees through the lies—not that she’d sympathize, because Mary suspects the girl lusts after her husband.

Mary understands lust. She feels it when she’s around her son-in-law, Jonathan, married to Thomas’s daughter by a previous marriage, and for Henry Simmons, a man who works in a merchant’s warehouse. At night, after Thomas has rolled off her and begun snoring, she touches herself and struggles to rationalize the pleasure, half-believing that the devil has, in fact, taken hold.

Nevertheless, when Thomas stabs her hand with a fork hard enough to break a bone and draw blood, Mary has had enough. Despite the odds, she decides to file for divorce, ignoring all counsel to desist. It’s not just that a woman has no chance against her husband, particularly one as clever as Thomas. It’s also the fork, which her father imported—a fork that has three tines, the extra tine suggesting, to some, an instrument of the devil.

I admire so many aspects of this brilliant novel that it’s hard to know what to name first. So I’ll start with the voice opening, which establishes the Puritan mindset and beliefs about sin. Few authors, particularly thriller authors, display the confidence to pull this off—where’s the action? Won’t I bore the reader?—but Bohjalian delivers.

These few pages wax terrified at the temptation lurking everywhere, implying that terror will recur in the following narrative. Most important to historical fiction, the author shows how people think in seventeenth-century Boston, and how that contrasts with today’s mores—or does it? Aren’t people still scared of their desires, and doesn’t the tremendous shame they carry prompt them to behave their worst?

Whoops; I’ve just praised a prologue. In my defense, I’ll point out that this one reveals no forward action.

But it does prepare us to see Mary as decent, mostly kind person struggling with being a vessel of desire and, though she wouldn’t recognize the word, a feminist. An early description of her down by the wharf shows how she tries to cast herself:

The men were tanned and young, and though it was autumn and there was wind in the air, the sun was still high and the crates and casks were heavy, and so she could see the sweat on their faces and bare arms. She knew she had come here to watch them; this was the reason she had walked this far. But she didn’t believe this was a sin or the men had been placed there as a temptation. Visiting the wharf was rather, she decided, like watching a hummingbird or a hawk or savoring the roses that grew through the stone wall at the edge of her vegetable garden. These men—the fellow with the blond, wild eyebrows or the one with the shoulders as broad as a barrel and a back that she just knew under his shirt was sleek and muscled and hairless—were made by God, too, and in her mind they were mere objects of beauty on which she might gaze for a moment before resuming her chores.

But Boston’s a place where every move is watched and judged, and this is how Hour of the Witch turns the screws. It’s not just that the threat may emerge anytime, anywhere, and often does. Nor is it only that “no—and furthermore” blooms here like dandelions (Mary’s image for envy), or that Bohjalian pushes his heroine to the absolute limit. With Thomas, he creates an antagonist who’s truly despicable yet apparently normal, which makes him that much more dangerous. While reading this book, I often thought of my favorite Hitchcock films, for the natural relentlessness of his villains and the manner in which ordinary objects, like the three-tined fork, become charged.

Hour of the Witch is a sterling example of a literary thriller, unafraid to dwell in emotional moments and use them to connect to the reader. I leave it to you to read this gripping narrative and ponder to what extent the Puritan scourge has marked our country to this day.

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