Monday, June 8, 2009

The Last Witchfinder

James Morrow

This is my second attempt at a book by James Morrow. I reviewed his newest The Philosopher's Apprentice just a couple of weeks ago. I may become a tiresome bore, writing review after review of Morrow's books, nine so far, although he seems to take a long time working on each one, so my binge can't go on too long. The Last Witchfinder was a seven year long project for him.

The Last Witchfinder is a kind of historical fantasy, set in late 17th and early 18th century England and America and involving figures such as Isaac Newton, Benjamin Franklin and Charles Montesquieu in the adventures of a fictional character, Jennet Stearne, a woman who has been given the task, by her aunt, a natural philosopher accused of witchcraft, of disproving the existence of demons, witchcraft and magic. Superficially, the book reminded me of John Barth's The Sot Weed Factor, because of the place and time, the elements of a voyage to the new world and the adventures of an unlikely cast of characters, moving through a semi-realistic and somewhat absurd 17th century world.

The central theme of the book, set in a time of transition, like our own, is the conflict between the rising of the coming age of reason with the irrational medieval superstition still prevalent during the renaissance. The Salem witch trials figure highly in the book. It becomes somewhat gruesome in it's depiction of the torture and execution of supposed witches. Parallels with current conflicts between reason and irrationality can be drawn, yet the novel treads on that ground very lightly, never becoming didactic.

There is an element of magical realism to the book, even as it tries to show the superiority of reason over superstition. The book's narrator, and purported author is Isaak Newton's PhilosophiƦ Naturalis Principia Mathematica. There are interludes throughout the book in which Newton's magnum opus addresses the reader directly and discusses the lives, loves and literary accomplishments of other books and sometimes plays. You may be surprised to hear that Waiting for Godot is responsible for writing Microsoft's application documentation - or maybe not.


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