Review: Everyone Knows your Mother is a Witch by Rivka Galchen

Rating: 4 out of 5.

“Katharina is an illiterate widow, known by her neighbours for her herbal remedies and the success of her children, including her eldest, Johannes, who is the Imperial Mathematician and renowned author of the laws of planetary motion. It’s enough to make anyone jealous, and Katharina has done herself no favours by being out and about and in everyone’s business.”

– HarperCollins.ca

It’s difficult to guess the genre of Everyone Knows Your Mother is a Witch based on its premise. The first few pages aren’t written with the aim of clarifying this, and I read the opening scenes with a feeling of uncertainty, half worried and half amused. When a widow named Katharina Kepler is first accused of witchcraft, she doesn’t seem sure of how to react to the news either. Despite her family’s alarm, she seems inclined at first to laugh it off.

So you wonder: Will this be a courtroom drama? Social commentary? Comedy or tragedy?

I had no idea what to expect, and that was fine with me. The unconventional approach to describing the legal battle, the juxtaposition of satirical characters against the cutting realism of the setting – marvellous. I think I would have enjoyed it no matter how it ended. Everyone Knows Your Mother is a Witch will definitely be a favourite book of 2021.

A glance at the GoodReads reviews shows that a few people were let down by what they felt was a discrepancy between the premise and the actual plot, but I think Galchen’s varying of narrators and pace works brilliantly .

With a dexterity that reminds me of Hilary Mantel’s historical novels, Galchen incorporates the 17th century’s new vogue for silver forks and the heartbreak of its high child mortality rate into a crisply modern narrative about jealousy and suspicion. Nothing feels anachronistic – and yet nothing feels alien either.

The reader can hardly blame Katherina for disregarding the growing number of accusers and the corruption of the local judiciary until it may be too late: the numerous townspeople who link the tragedies of their lives to Katherina’s “witchcraft” remind me of small children explaining to adults how they know that unicorns exist.

Along with the brilliant setting and pacing, I found the characters very engaging. I unexpectedly saw a glimpse of how my own future could be in Galchen’s portrayal of Katherina – not as an illiterate widow whose neighbours believe in magic, of course, but as someone who is never fully understood or accepted by her community. Like Katherina, I’m more likely to offer advice than comfort when someone else is struggling. This can lead people to perceive me as uncouth, pretentious, or nosy; I’m never sure when people want a solution and when they just want me to say something sympathetic. Like Katherina, I’m knowledgeable about things that others might find inappropriate or discomforting. Her inability to weep at a time weeping is expected – and the way she is judged because of this – also feels disturbingly familiar.

The cacophony of accusations and counter-accusations swells until the time of Katharina’s trial. Her neighbour Simon, who has acted as her legal guardian (even though he’s younger – welcome to the 17th century!) picks up his intermittent narration to tell the end of the tale. Simon’s account reflects the parallel troubles of his community and his country as the Thirty Years’ War spreads through the German duchies hand in hand with the plague – all delivered with a tone of resignation, the words of a man who understands how little he can control in his life. In this quiet manner, Galchen ends her book.

Everyone Knows Your Mother is a Witch is recommended for:

  • Book clubs with an interest in history, feminism, or social commentary.
  • Fans of Hilary Mantel, Kazuo Ishiguro, or Alice Munro.
  • Those who enjoy the tragicomic, the satirical, and the disturbingly familiar.

Published by Emma Lammers

Writer with a novel in progress. Book reviewer. Occasionally crafty.

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