Signs, wonders, and witchcraft beset 17th-century France in Australian author Womersley's (Cairo, 2014, etc.) fourth novel.
This grim but spellbinding book is a danse macabre to the tune of Womersley’s incantatory prose. The year is 1673. In the rural hamlet of Saint-Gilles, Charlotte Picot’s husband dies of plague. Now she has only her son, Nicolas, her other three children having succumbed to various illnesses. Hoping to avoid contagion, mother and son flee their village. On the road, marauders ambush the pair: Nicolas is kidnapped. Charlotte, wounded and delirious, wanders in a Bruegel-ian dreamscape but is healed by Marie Rolland, a hermit witch. Marie passes her knowledge and her black book to Charlotte, instructing her to use them wisely, advice Charlotte almost immediately ignores. Thinking she is summoning a demon, she's actually crossed paths with a man named Adam Lesage, who, released after five years as a galley slave, is on his way back to Paris. In order to bend him to her will and enlist his aid in reaching Paris to look for Nicolas, she threatens to cast him back. She means to hell; Lesage thinks she means to the galleys. Almost immediately, the reader's credulity is challenged: Lesage (based on a known sorcerer later caught up in a plot against the Sun King) seems too jaded and sophisticated for such a misapprehension. Womersley’s Paris is a tableau vivant of repellent sights and scents, overcrowding, nonexistent sanitation, and abject poverty. Lesage rejoins his Parisian accomplices: charlatans, magicians, and witches who profitably exploit the superstitions of the spoiled nobility. Desperate to escape his imagined bondage, he traces Nicolas’ whereabouts to a den of child traffickers and agrees to ransom him—in return for his help in recovering a hidden treasure. Fascinating historical truths clash with swashbuckler tropes until Womersley’s only way out is through improbable plot development and puzzling character behavior.
Worth reading for the writing alone, but the close will confound and frustrate many readers; a sequel may be the only remedy.