Magic Lessons by Alice Hoffman: Brimming with spells and remedies, magic and malevolence - book review -
It’s one thing to learn magic, but quite another to be born with it.
Prepare to be totally bewitched as Alice Hoffman, master storyteller and a literary practitioner of the dark arts, returns with a stunning prequel to her two extraordinary novels, Practical Magic and Rules of Magic, which charted the fates of a family of witches in Salem, Massachusetts.
Magic Lessons travels back to 17th century England to trace a centuries-old curse to its source and lift the veil on Maria Owens, matriarch of a line of amazing Owens women whose lives and loves have enthralled thousands of readers.
In a story woven through with fierce and inspirational women, the dark history of witchcraft and persecution, cruel betrayal, revenge and bittersweet redemption, Hoffman takes us on a thrilling adventure from the green fields of England and the Caribbean island of Dutch Curaçao on to Salem and New York City.
In 1664, only two decades after the demise of brutal witch-finder Matthew Hopkins, ‘green witch’ Hannah Owens finds a baby girl abandoned in a snowy field in rural England. The infant has been wound in a blanket with her name, Maria, stitched along the border, and a crow keeps a watchful eye on her.
Under the care of Hannah – a ‘green magic’ visionary who blends the soul of the individual with the soul of the earth – Maria learns about the natural world and the Nameless Arts. Hannah recognises immediately that Maria has a gift and she teaches the girl all she knows.
Hannah proves to be a kind and generous soul but, in a time of suspicion and superstition, there are those who believe that even good folk can be ‘hidden servants of evil’ who can curse the land and cause children to die. Healers must do their work discreetly because women are blamed for much of the world’s troubles.
As quick learner Maria grows, Hannah teaches the girl her first important lesson… love appears in many guises and can be either a blessing or a curse so ‘always love someone who will love you back.’
It soon becomes clear that Maria is a ‘bloodline witch’ with magic inside her and Hannah says she must leave England and escape to the new world where ‘a woman wasn’t considered worthless.’ But some years later, when Maria is abandoned by the man who has declared his love for her, she follows him to Salem.
And it is here that she invokes the curse that will haunt her family. And it’s here that she learns the rules of magic and the lesson that she will carry with her for the rest of her life. Love is the only thing that matters…
There’s a rich kind of magic in everything that Boston-based Hoffman puts her pen to and Magic Lessons is no exception… some of the darker corners of spells and witchcraft are explored along with a period of history when fears of the Devil stalked everyday life and a woman’s knowledge and healing gifts were viewed with suspicion and enmity.
Written with Hoffman’s exceptional fluency and word power, this beautifully created prequel opens up a window on to the birth of a dynasty of witches whose trials, tribulations and tragedies have captured hearts and fired imaginations.
Through the stories of Hannah and Maria, we revisit an age when women had very little power to change their destinies, a time when the darker feminine arts could provide the glue that held them together, but also the weapon that could spell their downfall.
But this is also a story of love – the love between a mother and daughter, and the love for a man which can so easily lead to danger, disappointment and obsession.
Brimming with spells and remedies, magic and malevolence, curses and courage, Magic Lessons sees Hoffman at her storytelling best.
(Scribner, paperback, £8.99)