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The Witches of Moonshyne Manor by Bianca Marais

Reviewed by Wayne Ng

Every story is, at some level, about change and shifting identities. Bestseller Bianca Marais tackles that head-on in The Witches of Moonshyne Manor. Marais is a novelist and social and political activist who launched the hugely popular podcast The Shit No One Tells You About Writing (TSNOTYAW), which is aimed at emerging writers. However, many established writers and instructors also dial in because it’s entertaining and instructive. Now with thousands tuning in weekly, her listeners will be micro-scoping her every comma and character, wondering if she has practiced what she’s been preaching.

Moonshyne is her pandemic novel, purposely written to give the world what we had sorely needed—escapism, chuckles, and something to rouse our weary souls. It presents a stark contrast and wildly inventive departure from her previous literary novel, Hum If You Don't Know the Words.

Six octogenarian witches face a mob and eviction from the only home that’s ever mattered to them. Leading this charge is Bartholomew, whose family has always had eyes on the Manor. He schemes to turn it into a playground for males with arrested development, which is pretty much every dude in the book. There is no subterfuge behind Marais’ themes. Toxic masculinity, patriarchy, identity and ageism are only some of the themes she delves into. With five of the covenant about to be turfed, their only hope and salvation is the sixth member Ruby, about to be freed from jail after more than three decades.

Instead, Ruby's release unfurls secrets that threaten to permanently fracture the sisterhood. Marais patiently feathers each of the witches' backstories, highlighting moments such as Ruby’s imprisonment, the death of Tabitha who returns as a ghost, and how each of the witches joined the collective as youngsters.

While this is a commercial novel with Marais opening with alarms blaring and stakes clearly laid out, she quickly focuses on character building, working her ensemble cast in, each with distinct identities and powers. There’s Queenie (the de facto leader among equals), Jezebel (the sexaholic), Ivy (the botanist), Tabitha (the ghost with a raven who speaks for her), Ursula (the clairvoyant) and Ruby (who shapeshifts between genders). Bringing up the rear is an unexpected visitor—Persephone, a feminist teen TikTokker who’s the mayor’s daughter and every bit the rabble-rouser.

Age and time have buffeted their powers, rendering them vulnerable and forcing Queenie to throw a Hail Mary at a dark wizard. The risks escalate as the clock runs out in this fast-paced, intriguing romp. The short chapters are fluid and are inter-spaced with recipes for spells, potions, cocktails, lube and bush care, which are so hilarious Marais should’ve included disclaimers.

But it’s more than a witchy rollick. Clearly, these are women who would agree that they’ve exceeded their best-before dates: “Life marches on…those left behind are just eroded…who feel so abandoned…and age hibernates in joints that will never see spring again.” There is much wisdom afoot, principally in the power of sisterhood. In particular, the wizened elders band together and harness all they’ve experienced and can still offer when respected and given the opportunity. These are no shrinking, itty-bitty old ladies. Moonshyne is a rallying cry and laugh track for women who no longer want to tolerate the twin straight jackets of patriarchy and ageism. For Jezebel, whose prowess and sexual appetite would rival any college dorm student, “aging gracefully is a bore.” (Surely, she’ll be most readers’ favourite. Seniors can still enjoy sex, don't cha know?) The women recognize, “it sometimes takes a tragedy to reveal parts of ourselves that we never knew were there,” and they’ll no longer stand idly knowing that.

From a craft perspective, Marais practiced what she preaches. The characters are rich and varied with unique voices and backstories incrementally dispensed so that the engine of the plot rarely stops. Like every family, everyone has a particular role and place. There’s someone for every reader. The pace and a state of tension are forever ascending, taking the odd breather for a recipe break. Some readers will inevitably stumble as they juggle multiple points of view. Typically, I’d be one of them. But Marais has deftly constructed a very readable novel and one rarely strays off the intended course. Another point I’d add is: just about every male character (less Magnus—Ruby’s love but is largely off stage) is a uni-dimensional baddie. Most of the time we’re not all that way, are we?

In the end, Bianca Marais’ core message is that change and shifting identities are both fluid and as inevitable as the march of time. However, they needn’t be done in solitude, nor dictated by societal norms and expectations. This pandemic offering is both stirring and entertaining. It may be about a bunch of octogenarians, but it’s fresh as rain. We laugh, we cheer and we get immersed in the complex lives of women who have been far too easily dismissed.

The Witches of Moonshyne Manor is published by MIRA Books.


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