In the town of Bethel, the Prophet reigns over the villagers – the ‘flock’ as he calls them. He can speak the will of the Father thanks to his visions, and his duty is mainly to make sure that the community is free of sins – especially women who are more sensitive to the temptations of witchcraft. Bethel was created after the first Prophet defeated the Witches of the Dark Wood in a bloody battle against the army of Bethel and the Dark Mother. In this inherited fear and hatred of women, the Prophet and his apostles can have several wives and are never afraid to publicly humiliate women who have had relations with men outside marriage.
This is in this oppressive society that we meet Immanuelle, who’s a young woman who feels like she’s full of sin because her skin is a lot darker than everybody else’s, and her mother brought shame to the whole family by spending many months in the Darkwood, where the witches live. Immanuelle is paying back for her mother’s sins, so she focuses on her faith whilst still feeling a strange attraction for the wood.
There is so much to say about this book because Henderson tackles so many different topics that are all so interesting and important to talk about. I will focus mainly on the topic of womanhood in this review, mainly because this is one that I can mention without spoiling any parts of the plot. But if you’ve read the book, I’d like to talk about it more in the comments, I have so many thoughts about it!
Before I go any further, though, I would like to preface this review with some sort of trigger warning. This is a novel that deals with many aspects of female oppression, including sexual abuse and assault. It’s very well done in the book as it’s never said explicitly and is never represented in a graphic way, but if this is something that you are particularly sensitive to, it’s something you should know. Secondly, this is a horror novel which means there are some pretty gorey bits. Also, blood – there’s a lot of it in this book. A lot.
Blood is extremely important in general as when a girl has a period for the first time, she can be finally considered a woman and do all the things that she is supposed to do: marry and birth children. Sounds familiar? Oh yes, Bethel is just a slightly exaggerated version of our society – minus the witches. Even before their first periods and for the rest of their lives, girls and women are considered dangerous as if they were always trying to maliciously seduce men. This is something this book made me realise: throughout history, women have been oppressed because men were not able to control their sexual impulses. Women were not necessarily doing anything to provoke desire in men, but the latter nonetheless considered them this way and were afraid of that. It always takes two people to have a relationship, but in Bethel – and in our lives – only women are held responsible for it.
Not only did this book remind me of the MeToo movement, but it also echoed the debate around abortion that is going backwards in many countries. I won’t say too much about it as I know this is a sensitive topic and it would spoil an important part of the plot, but there is at one point a childbirth scene that is not exactly going according to plan, shall we say. The older women are debating what to do, and the consensus is to get the child out no matter what happens next. They have no regard for the mother’s life or even the child’s wellbeing, growing up without a mother. Of course, this reminded me of pro-life arguments that only take into consideration the new life and never care about the mother and/or the trauma that it can cause to a child to grow up in an environment where it’s not wanted or can’t be supported financially.
The witches themselves are broken women – literally. They’re disfigured by their injuries and some of their limbs seem dislocated. They looked like abused women who have had to stand tall under the beatings of men for many centuries. This is the topic more relevant than ever with so many women trapped with their abusive partner during lockdown. As you can understand, this is a book that will make you reflect on many issues that every woman has to face, especially women of colour as Immanuelle is mixed-race and I wonder if the interest one of the characters shows her is not an embodiment of the offensive and sexualising ways white men will interact with black women. Something to think about, as well!
I would really recommend reading The Year of the Witching, if you’re interested in the issues I’ve mentioned and if you’re in the mood to prolong Halloween. It’s not a scary novel, as in you’ll be able to sleep at night, but there are definitely some gruesome scenes that will keep you on your toes. I love novels that manage to combine perfectly entertaining stories that you can’t put down, and clever commentary on our society.
Have you read this book? What did you think of it? Let me know if you haven’t but would like to read it! Happy reading 🙂