The Limits of Enchantment by Graham Joyce

(9.4/10) Both powerful and familiar

This is a tale that takes place in rural England in 1966. I found that a little odd on a personal level because it starts with a birth, deals with midwives, and… I was born in 1966, so a slight queasiness, reflective of the subject matter and its two-worlds-hopping nature.

Joyce’s book is initially focused on the relationship between an older woman (Mammy) who is something of a hedge witch (though she is not overtly identified as such) and her adopted daughter Fern.

It is through Fern’s voice and perspective that we learn about Mammy’s ways. The difficulty here is that part of Mammy’s way is to say as little as possible about her way, and so Fern, who has seen and done much with Mammy and so knows so much more than even she is able to understand or admit, is nonetheless unable to articulate with any specificity what we, the readers, should accept as the nature of enchantment, however limited.

Much is implied, in other words.

And that works, oddly enough, because much of what is real is in flux, in question, somewhat like Schroedinger’s cat, to the kinds of folk (the few) this book seems to be dealing with. There are no annotations. There is the action, the comings and goings and crises, most of which center around Mammy’s illness, the efforts of the powers that be to force Fern and Mammy out of their home, and the need for everyone to get laid. Or not. Mostly not, even when we think… oh, never mind.

It’s difficult to review a book where so much is purposefully left unsaid. I could do my best to dissect it, to lay it out for you, but that would get you… nowhere, not when it comes to engaging and embracing this wonderful, well-woven story. At its heart, The Limits of Enchantment is about people, and how they need each other and find each other and forgive each other and grow. It isn’t really about magick at all.

It’s about the rights of women as well, and how women were made to generate alternate paths to personal power in ways that, as it turns out, might not have been so unfortunate as they are sometimes made out to be.

Fern is a strong, fascinating character, a discoverer whose powerful belief is repeatedly re-upped by her doubts in and of it. She lives the enchantment, so to speak, without giving it much mind. Ironically, particularly when considering the nature of the text, the book about enchantment she is occasionally pestered to write (and in some form, does write) is never a factor at all: her story remains about the people in her life, and how they uplift and support and defend one another, often in the most surprising ways.

It is very much a book about honoring differences and weighing perspectives and finding opportunities to separate and save the beauty from the pain.

To anyone who’s run into this sort of thing, as it seems clear Graham Joyce has, the depiction is both powerful and familiar. The less said, the better, for it is instinct and acceptance of what lies beyond the conventional that bring our internal discussions and progressions into specific relief. It’s not a better way, this so-called enchantment. It’s just a way, and the people who find themselves asking are ultimately very much like everyone else, in need of love, understanding, healing, and tomorrow.

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