Discussion Posts

Discussion: The generational story of A Secret History of Witches

Generations as story telling: How the book does it

For those unfamiliar with A Secret History of Witches, the book’s formatting is told in generations. Each section is titled “The Book of _” and told from the POV of one of the women in a line of witches, beginning with Nanette. The chain stretches from mother to daughter, progressing from Nanette’s young adulthood to her daughter’s and so on and so forth. Each book typically begins just before the woman is introduced to witchcraft, telling the reader a bit about what her childhood was like and giving us a taste of her personality before showing how she reacts to her inherited magic–and how that magic reacts to her.

The story progresses from the early nineteenth century to the mid-twentieth, giving years for reference at the start of sections and chapters. Allusions to previous times in history are also given, as the Orchiere women remember the history of the women who came before them and what their fates were. As the novel progresses, the women shift from remembering but hiding their identities as Romani travelers to fully integrating into the United Kingdom. There is a shift from French names to anglicized to Welsh, reflecting where the family has ended up.

Why I like this

I’ll be honest, I didn’t anticipate this storytelling style when I started the book and it was a pleasant experience. I enjoyed getting to know each mother and daughter in the line, especially being able to see daughters and granddaughters make mistakes based on what they’ve been taught. The relationships were complex, some good and some bad, and it was interesting seeing Nanette’s impact on the rest of her line. I also enjoyed seeing how the further removed from the past the women got, the stranger their relationship to magic and their legacy. By the end of the novel, the original Romani and French roots of the family have been forgotten, but a lingering sense of their fear remains. Persecution is still a very real possibility as the generations progress, even though from the very beginning it’s brushed away as superstition.

The cons

One of the unfortunate aspects of this type of storytelling is that we don’t get to see as much of each character as we might like. Nanette’s life was the most known to us, as the set up to the story describes a moment from her early childhood, before beginning her story as a young adult. We also get to see the later years of her life from her daughter’s perspective, giving us more of Nanette than any other character. After that point, for various reasons, we only really see snapshots of mothers’ lives after we transition to their daughters’ stories. While each book is from the perspective of its respective woman, we lose that woman’s perspective in the next section. What we learn of each woman’s personality may have shifted, considering gaps of at least a decade occur between each book. Additionally, we don’t always get a resolution to each woman’s story due to this.

Final thoughts

I really couldn’t get over this decision in the writing, and I think it’s one of the most interesting things I’ve read recently. The nature of the story really adapts to the idea of generational stories being told chronologically, and I thoroughly enjoyed the execution of this story. I honestly wouldn’t mind more similar formats–even if in the form of actual novel installments in series. Can you imagine reading a high fantasy epic where each book is the next generation, showing you the expansion of power over time? That would be an amazing world building technique. Even in the context of a single novel, this was an excellent way to introduce, build, and develop multiple characters without overlap.

Readers, tell me in the comments what you think of this idea!

By Catherine

I'm a lover of books, coffee, wine, and bees. Happy to join the ranks of book bloggers everywhere!

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