Faith Falls is a snug little Minnesota town constructed over a mystery, a place where the most impressive building is a gorgeous Queen Anne with turrets, cantilevered gables, and a wraparound porch. In a concealed room beneath the twisting stairs of the Queen Anne lies the Catalain Book of Secrets, the repository of the wisdom the Catalain women have gathered since the beginning of time.
Ursula Catalain, current keeper of the Book of Secrets, is content to concoct spells in her garden cottage until the ghost of the man she murdered when she was 12 appears at her door in a new form. His return pulls Jasmine, Ursula's daughter, back into the fold. Once believed to be the most powerful of the Catalains, she foreswore her gift years before to bury a shameful secret. The ghost of the murdered man also calls home Katrine, Jasmine's sister, who has been banished for fourteen years. Finally able to return to Faith Falls and the beloved Queen Anne, Katrine must claim her true Catalain power to save her mother and sister from the dark family curse.
Told in a majestic mosaic of strong women’s voices, The Catalain Book of Secrets weaves together alchemy, hope, tragedy, and true love to spin a tale in the style of Garden Spells, Eva Luna, and Practical Magic.
Extract from the Goodreads description
The description makes major claims: a book that is in the style of Garden Spells (by Sarah Addison Lee), Eva Luna (Isabel Allende) and Practical Magic (Alice Hoffman). The trouble is that whilst all three of these books are magic realist books with strong female characters they are very different and appeal to different readerships. Of these readerships I think the Addison Lee crowd are the ones who are going to have most problems - with the rape that forms a major plot element in the book and with Ursula's sexual promiscuity. You know that I do not have a problem with grittiness in a story (it's one of the reasons I like Alice Hoffman) but others will and I don't understand why you would invite Addison Lee readers to buy the book.
So what did I make of The Catalain Book of Secrets? There is a lot of magic in this book - all the Catalain women are witches and each has a different form of magic. One makes magic food, one brews potions in the garden shed, one makes magic sweets, one sees people's potential, another their emotional wounds... Usually in magic-realist books (particularly of this type) the central characters will have one form of magic. Add to this that the Catalain witches are fighting a demon and I begin to wonder if this is close to being urban fantasy or something similar.
A main theme of the book is that of sisterhood both in the literal sense but also in the sense of the sisterhood of women in the face of violent men. As the Catalain Book of Secrets says:
Nothing multiplies your power like a sister.
And the converse is also the case: what weakens women's power are secrets kept from one another, silence in the face of male abuse, and the rivalry and tensions we feel for one another. When the Catalain women act on their own, they are too weak to take on the male demon, but when all seven act together...
The mother/daughter relationship is also explored with both Ursula and Jasmine trying not to be like their mothers and making different mistakes. As a mother and a daughter that theme rings very true to me.
This is a more demanding book than those by Addison Lee and similar cosy magic realism writers. Not only because you are made to think, but also because of the narrative style. The book is written from the points of view of the main characters and moves between them. There is also some movement in the time settings. This does have the effect of slowing the book a bit as we get up to pace with the different characters, but after a while the story really kicks off. The author's slightly poetic style of description also might slow things for some people, but I enjoyed her turns of phrase - there are some particularly good descriptions of taste as you might expect given the food magic.
I understand that this is Jessica Lourey's first magic-realist book and one which she used crowdfunding to publish - she already has a successful career as a writer of mysteries. I am fascinated to find out why she decided to diversify into magic realism and will be interested to see what she produces next.
I recieved a free review copy from the author in return for a fair review.