Reviewed by Menaka Raman-Wilms
The Witches of New York is a fascinating intertwining of the tangible and the magical. It’s set in New York in 1880, and is a story about three women, each of whom has their own special abilities: Adelaide reads the future, Eleanor keeps spells and potions, and young Beatrice can see ghosts. Together they run their shop, Tea and Sympathy, where they provide their female clientele with refreshments, conversation, and the occasional brush with the supernatural.
Though they hide their identity as witches from most of society, certain people begin to develop suspicions. As Beatrice starts to uncover her unique abilities to channel and speak with ghosts, she starts to draw more attention. Some people are eager to help and encourage Beatrice, but others find her threatening, and when she’s endangered, Adelaide and Eleanor have to rely upon themselves to try and rescue her.
McKay’s writing is lovely, and the entire book is captivating. Though the story is drawn out and at times interspersed with frequent sidetracked details, it remains compelling and quite enjoyable. While highlighting the age of innovation, the book examines the myriad ways that women are denied power in society, as well as the subtle ways they are able to reassert themselves.
This is showcased, perhaps intentionally, in the fact that all the women in the book are unique, complex people, while the male characters are much simpler. Most men in this story can be easily broken down into bad and good stereotypes, as they are either completely controlling and misguided, or kind-hearted and protective, yet not overbearing. This stereotyping can be seen as a statement in and of itself, and it certainly helps to emphasize the individuality of each woman in the story.
Without being heavy handed, this story delves into some of the most interesting and demanding questions of gender politics. It establishes a growing, modernizing society, but emphasizes the ways in which things are designed to hold down free-thinking women. As a result, the magic that these women access is a perfect metaphor for the subtle ways that they can rebel: since women can’t control that which is visible, they create their own spaces, and exist in realities that are slightly removed.
The real world and the magical in this story are expertly woven together. Adelaide and Eleanor’s shop, Tea and Sympathy, is a place where women come to get herbal remedies to help with sleep, relaxation, and abortions, but it’s also a space where they can freely speak their minds and demonstrate their abilities. It is already a unique place, and, as a result, the occasional ghostly encounter doesn’t appear that strange.
The fact that the book is set in 1880, when new innovations and discoveries were being showcased daily in New York, also lends a certain legitimization to these ideas: against the backdrop of this age of possibility, belief in the supernatural is barely a stretch.
Beyond just being a compelling read, The Witches of New York is a fascinating examination of how women can channel power when suppressed, as well as the strength of female friendship. It is a truly interesting and thought-provoking story.
The Witches of New York is published by Harper Collins.