I’m not going to let this excellent book be the one that let me get behind in reviews in 2022. I’ve been too intimidated to start writing this review because the book was so smart, so I sat down just now and decided I was going to type until a review came out. So that’s what’s happening here.
Everyone Knows Your Mother Is a Witch is just as cheeky as its title would imply. The book is (darkly) funny, and the story of Katharina Kepler (mother of Johannes Kepler) is told mostly in her own words, with occasional excerpts of testimony from those speaking at her trial, and first person narration by her friend and neighbor Simon, who acts as her guardian. Because Katharina, living in 1618 at the beginning of the Thirty Years War and another outbreak of Plague, has been accused of being a witch. This is historical fiction, not historical fantasy, so unfortunately there is no actual witchcraft here, but the story is based on actual history, as Johannes Kepler’s mother was indeed accused of witchcraft, and although the book only slightly hints at this, historians think this was part of a series of attempts on the part of Kepler’s political and scientific rivals to discredit him. (Kepler, if you don’t know off the top of your head (I didn’t) was the dude who wrote the Planetary Laws of Motion.)
So, plague and false accusations of witchcraft here. You know you’re in for a good time.
Except, weirdly, it was a good time. Katharina is illiterate, so she employs her friend and neighbor (and legal guardian) Simon to chronicle the story for her. Katharina’s voice is so unique and I loved her by the end of five minutes. I enjoyed Simon as a narrator as well, although his outlook on life is much more bleak than Katharina’s, and he’s a very different person (certainly not as funny). The testimony excerpts from Katharina’s trial were by turns darkly hilarious and infuriating. Rivka Galchen appears to be a master of subtle satire.
And of course, the narrator, whose name is Natasha Soudek, and please can she narrate five thousand more books immediately. She was immensely talented, and her delivery of some of these lines (which were already great) made them even better. Her accent work was impeccable, and she makes the old fashioned word usage of the characters seem natural and human. Her sense of comic timing is superb. I think I would have loved this book anyway, but the audio really made it something special. If you like audiobooks, I recommend going that way first if you have the chance. (Saying this, I turned around and bought myself a hard copy soon after finishing. It’s currently $9 on Book Outlet.)
Be warned going in, things aren’t all dark laughter and satirical joyfulness. With Plague comes death. If you have read Doomsday Book, similar vibes to that book were going on here, and similar sad outcomes as well. People in 1618 did not have great or even good life expectancy. The Plague parts of the novel weren’t huge, but they do make their presence known.
Anyways, this book was great. This is the kind of literary fiction I can get into.
[4.5 stars, rounded up for the fantastic audio performance]