Skip to main content

Ami McKay is a fine plotter, as she’s shown in her bestselling The Birth House and The Virgin Cure.

Nasty women, your party has arrived. Ami McKay's witches are in town. Granted, the town is New York in the fall of 1880, and there's only so much rolling a girl can do in that climate. But the real aim of McKay's new novel is to show a group of believable women leading "an unconventional life," doing their damndest to liberate themselves from constraints of all sorts, from the pedestrian to the demonic. Although it could use a little more voltage, this overlap of realism and magic is the book's charm.

Framed by accounts of the Cleopatra's Needle obelisk arriving in New York from Egypt, The Witches of New York is carefully researched, and its interspersing of historical accounts gives it a gently archival feel. Descriptions of period dress are loving – a prostitute's corset is "made from pink satin, heavily embroidered, and with silver clasps" – and society types straight out of Edith Wharton pursue spiritualism for fun. Sticking to fizz would be easy, but McKay widens her scope with grimier episodes of sightseers at the city morgue, and dance parties at Blackwell's Island asylum. She has a nose for the Dickensian. The depictions of the spirit world can be somewhat twee by comparison; the dream-bringing "Dearly" fairies are cloying, for instance, but the trapped ghosts of "scrubber girls" killed in the terrible, historically accurate fire at the Fifth Avenue Hotel are heartbreaking and genuinely eerie. The author is at her best when tying the unearthly to the ground.

McKay is a fine plotter, as she's shown in her bestselling The Birth House and The Virgin Cure (that book's heroine, Moth, reappears here as Adelaide Thom). The Witches of New York's premise is a neat one: Centuries after Salem, American witches are still quietly around, and young Beatrice Dunn is about to become the first one "made, not born." Bored with country life, she has long been collecting X-Files-style snippets on "Astonishments" – deaths foreseen, ghosts sighted, etc. She wants to believe. And when she moves to the city to work for Adelaide, a street-smart "seeress" whose actual eye has been damaged in an acid attack, and Eleanor St. Clair, one of a long line of "wise women" skilled in herbalism, Beatrice proves to be quite a medium herself.

In spite of spats and roadblocks, the three make a new order of entrepreneurial witches, marketing their services with calling cards and a shop. But the fragile modern idyll can't last, and when Beatrice vanishes, Adelaide and Eleanor have to summon all their powers to seek her. The layering of narratives and styles is lively, and the multiple characters' pasts are especially absorbing. The trouble is that the book's broad panorama sometimes makes us wish as plaintively as Oliver Twist for more; when we see McKay dig hard into her people and period, we want to see her do it all the time, to the same depth. Characters sometimes blur as their voices can sound very similar. Many descriptions are lush, but a few anachronistic gongs are jarring: "No worries," say a couple of the women, or "She'd gifted the ribbon to Beatrice." The novel also introduces the connection of early psychology and spiritualism, and a little more of that would also be welcome. There's room for a sequel, though, and McKay can surely go another round with the witches if she chooses. As she notes, "If there was ever a place where one could start again, it was Manhattan."

These characters are experts at starting again; all have lost their mothers and suffered other tragedies. On the flip side of their backstories is the novel's linking of their time to our present. This is one of its major strengths; here, McKay gets down into the trenches. The women in the book are hobbled by the 1873 Comstock Law, which made contraception essentially impossible for them to obtain. Among her other teas and tonics, Eleanor quietly makes herbal birth control and abortifacients for the desperate. A puritanical churchman provides further villainy, trotting out the same devil-women dirge his Salem forebears hollered. So now, when governments and religions still have a tight grip on reproduction, and Trumpian misogyny has been grimly spotlit, McKay's work takes on pointed meaning. Her women go calmly about their business in a hostile world, circumventing the system wherever they can, getting up every time they're knocked down. Abracadabra: this is their real magic.

Alix Hawley is the author of All True Not a Lie in It, which won the First Novel Award.

Interact with The Globe