Sunday, February 6, 2011

The Joy of Reading A DISCOVERY OF WITCHES, by Deborah Harkness

Once in a great while, you come across a book that you want to read as slowly as possible.  You fight the urge to speed along, though you want desperately to know what happens next.  Instead, you turn the page slowly, reading some sentences twice or three times, out of sheer delight.  So it is with Deborah Harkness’s A Discovery of Witches.
Harkness is a prize-winning historian of magic and science in early modern Europe.  As a historian myself, I reveled in her command of people and places and times, and in her palpable joy in showing us how much fun it is to sit quietly in a great library, poring over dusty manuscripts in the hope of getting a big surprise.  Thus there is much of the author in Harkness’s protagonist, historian Diana Bishop, who comes across an enchanted alchemical manuscript in the Bodleian Library at Oxford.  Every historian hopes to find something in the archives that will change the world forever.  Diana does, but she gets a whole lot more than any of us bargain for.  It happens that she’s a witch, the last in a distinguished family line that traces back to the first woman executed for witchcraft in Salem.  But Diana’s made a life’s work out of denying her powers.  Suddenly she’s surrounded by a host of supernatural creatures—the witches, daemons, and vampires who live alongside humans in our world—including a very sexy 1500 year-old vampire, the physician and geneticist, Matthew Clairmont.  Pretending she’s not a witch, it seems, is no longer an option.
Matthew and Diana are a terrific pair.  Theirs is a union not only of great hearts and nice bodies, but also of magnificent minds.  Watching them match wits and compare notes, you have the sensation that you’re witnessing the birth of one of the greatest couples since Hepburn and Tracy.  She’s impulsive but thoughtful and thorough; he’s patient and loyal, but has a hair-trigger temper.   They share a love of fine wines and old books, of practicing yoga and solving really complicated puzzles.  And they are in danger from the moment they meet.
Matthew and Diana have to fight the world-shaking forces that seek to keep them apart, not only to claim their love, but to avert global disaster.  They’ll need some help, obviously, and along the way we meet a wonderful cast of creatures, including members of Matthew’s vampire family and Diana’s witch kin.  I have been casting the movie as I read (always a good sign), and see parts for Christian Bale, Javier Bardem, Meryl Streep, Amy Adams, Daniel Craig. . .you get the picture.  Lots of juice in these characters.
While Harkness spins a corking good yarn, there are deeper purposes at work in her tale.  This is a book about overcoming the fear of what’s inside you, about owning who you are and what you can become.  Matthew will have to stop being afraid to love, and Diana will have to come to terms with her prodigious magical powers.  I am a novelist as well as a historian, and watching Diana learn how to command the magic inside her reminded me of the process of learning to write a novel.  Each creative act requires discipline, patience, a watchful relaxation of the narrowing power of reason, and a willful opening of emotion and imagination.  When it’s going well, writing a novel feels like making magic, as you meet the characters who say and do things you’d never expected, as scenes fly out of your fingers and onto the page and you shake yourself, hours later, wondering, “Where the heck did that come from?”  By the end of A Discovery of Witches, Diana has just begun to find her power as a witch, but Harkness has shown us, from page one, her formidable power as a storyteller.
Lucky for all of us, this is just the first book in a projected trilogy.  Alas, we will have to wait patiently (there’s that word again), for the second.  But readers will be grateful and glad to encounter a book that entertains hugely, and that urges us to know, to grow, to love bravely, and to let the magic come.