By Graham Joyce
© 2013, Black Dust Creations Ltd
Kindle version; file size 1104 KB
In every way that matters, Fern Cullen is daughter to Mammy Cullen, who sees to the needs of village women in rural England around 1960. It’s Mammy who helps them regulate their bleeds. Mammy who blesses the wedding cakes. Mammy who helps birth—and sometimes save—the babes. And it’s Mammy they call when they accidentally get in the family way. Mammy who can’t read or write. Mammy who has no “official” title. Mammy who knows The Ways, and can make things happen.
All her life, Fern has worked by Mammy’s side. Learned by doing. Prepared to take Mammy’s place one day. Fern sees not just Mammy’s compassion and skill, but the hatred and fear some villagers hold toward both Mammy and Fern. When one of them acts on those feelings, Fern’s life takes a turn for the odd, and suddenly “One Day” is here much sooner than Fern had expected.
This is a wonderful tale, dark and light in turns, weird in the ways of the old wise women. There is magic here. On every page, Joyce gives us glimpses of country practices that should never have been forgotten. The arrival of “modern medicine” heralded the end of women like Mammy in most places. Yet we see the tenacity of these folk, and those they catered to, and the lengths to which they would go to maintain their practice and safety from those who would harm them. In this story, Mammy was one of “the few,” a term foreshadowed and demonstrated, but never exactly explained. It came clear to me, though, that she was a witch in the old sense, one who whispered love into the baking of a wedding cake, or healing into a poultice. She dwelled apart and lived close to the Earth and its cycles, marking the passage of time with seasonal changes rather than a calendar. Wise woman, witch, healer—all terms apply.
Having spent some time among witches, healers, and herbalists, there were details here I recognized. But as the story takes place in an earlier time, and in rural England, I also found practices, not to mention language, unfamiliar to me. Most is understandable given the context, but it did trip me up a time or two. While the story is fictional, the tale it tells is not. The Hare Pie Scramble and Bottle Kicking festivities that play a role in the story are an actual custom in Hallaton, England that dates back over 300 years. The practices of midwifery and herbal magic, too, are taken almost word-for-word from the real world. It’s details like these, as well as Mammy’s and Fern’s unique character portrayals, that give this book so much charm. (Pun definitely intended.)
True, too, are the portrayals of Mammy’s enemies, men who were threatened by Mammy, Fern, and others like them, women who stood their ground against the power of their detractors who were determined to push them out. I despised the males in this story that thought themselves better than Mammy, and who hurt her in an effort to stop her. In Mammy, and then in Fern, we see wonderful portrayals of strong women, as unstoppable in their own ways as any storm.
This is the first book I’ve read by Graham Joyce, but I’m certain it won’t be the last. The Limits of Enchantment is an excellent tale by a peerless storyteller. If you love tales of magic, of the unique ability to see through the veil between this world and the next, add this book to your list. You won’t want to miss it.