The Witches

I’m determined to read more this year. From time to time, as I finish books, I’ll post reviews here if I think they have something worthwhile to say about writing.

If you want, you can follow along at Goodreads, otherwise, here’s the first:

The Witches
Roald Dahl

I didn’t think I was going to like this book, but after the vicious first chapter, which launches into a hectic witch scare and details how these ‘very real’ women ‘who could even be your teacher’ like to boil children alive and murder them in other creative ways — a chapter that quickly established that my 4 year old would not be listening to it, and after the slow, obvious setup, I found the heart of the story to be quite good, and there are things about it that I love.

Spoilers follow

Separation and Build Up

In my opinion, the setup is the main flaw in this otherwise terrific story, but as it goes with most problems of this kind, the solution isn’t easy. Here the writer faced the challenge of setting the context and giving specific details: witches exist, they disguise themselves in specific ways, and they meet annually. To jump right from this information to a grand hotel ballroom where a hundred laides file into a meeting would be too obvious — For there to be any suspenseful revelation there must be separation of time, and if possible, place. So Dahl spends some time wandering, and to me at least, it was clear that he was doing so, and in these moments I almost lost interest.

The boy’s discovery that the women in the meeting room are witches is a revelation more for the boy than for the reader, because the boy’s experience, while compressed for us, has allowed for time and space to pass. Once this scene is over, and the discovery is made, the story takes off and never slows down. In fact, there are scenes much more pivotal than this, which leads me to think that too much emphasis is placed on this one.

Bruno Jenkins and Unsympathetic Characters

As soon as I read the description of Bruno Jenkins – the fat, greedy boy who liked to bully others, I knew he was going down. This isn’t surprising, of course, and it got me thinking about the ways that we innocently use entertainment to execute on those subtle prejudices that we would rarely admit to, and how writers become accomplices in this. I’ve read four books this year, and they all feature dislikable people suffering punishments that we are somewhat led to believe they deserve simply because of their faults. I’ll digress for moment and say that in my first book, I didn’t follow this convention, and at least one reader was very angry with me.

What I Loved

Formula 86 Delayed-Action Mousemaker” is about the coolest thing I’ve ever read in the English language. There had better be a band, or at least an album, with that name.

Also, I love that the main character was turned into a mouse, and that he quite enjoyed it and did not regret losing either his boyhood or his longer life span. There was no desperate struggle to fight against reality – to regain what was lost, instead there was a complete embrace of the new. That’s a beautiful thing.


About J. E. Hunt

J. E. Hunt is a writer based in Washington DC, and the author of The Whispering Walls, its pending sequel, and several short stories. Please take a minute to check out his work.

One Response to “The Witches”

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