Fantasy Reads – `The Witches of Cambridge’

Is there enough cake in Fantasy fiction? I ask because my ideal comfort read would combine magic, romance and comedy with a beautiful setting and plentiful descriptions of delicious food – especially cake. I have recently found a book which does contain most of these elements – “The Witches of Cambridge” by Menna van Praag. She defines her work as Magical Realism and this is the fourth novel she has set in her home town of Cambridge, England. “The Witches of Cambridge” came out this month (May 2016) so it’s only available in hardback or as a reasonably priced ebook.

This story concerns an unusual group of people. Amandine, Héloise, Kat, Cosima, Noa and George have two things in common. They all live and work in Cambridge and they are all witches. Each of them has a different special power. Amandine, who teaches art history, can feel other people’s emotions. Her mother Héloise used to be able to see future events but hasn’t done so since she failed to predict her beloved husband’s death. Kat is a Professor of Mathematics who can turn formulae into spells while her younger sister Cosima bakes joyful magic into the food she serves at her Sicilian-style café, Gustare. Art student Noa perceives people’s deepest secrets. Kat’s best friend George claims that his magic can’t do anything much. When Amandine invites Noa to join the Witches’ Bookclub, which meets on the rooftops of Cambridge colleges, the evening doesn’t go well. Noa can’t help blurting out secrets that members of the group are trying to hide.

All the good witches have problems in their personal lives. Amandine believes that she has lost her husband’s love but she doesn’t know why. Héloise is starting to emerge from the numbness of grief but her husband’s ghost is still the dominating presence in her life. Kat fears that her secret love for George is unrequited and George doesn’t feel free to act on his true feelings. Cosima suffers from an inherited condition which makes pregnancy dangerous for her but she is determined to have a baby – even if it means misusing love spells. Noa sees her truth-telling gift as a curse, so when Brazilian artist and witch, Santiago, offers to change her, she leaps at the chance. Soon Noa is living an exciting new life in the London art-world, but is gorgeous Santiago too good to be true? There are shocks in store for all the witches and encounters with love and death. The power of the Cambridge Witches could save a soul, but only if they can shed their secrets….

Having studied and later taught at Cambridge University, I couldn’t resist a book called “The Cambridge Witches” but I was prepared to be critical of any mistakes in the background detail. I don’t think there are any. The boring bits of academic life have been left out, but that just helps to speed up the story-telling. Quirky areas of Cambridge town – such as Midsummer Common – are well exploited. The author is clearly writing about a place she knows and loves.  Menna van Praag is young, beautiful and successful but let’s not hate her for that because she endured a long struggle to get her work accepted and had to self-publish her first book  – “Men, Money and Chocolate” (great  title). She still has to put up with patronising reviews. I note that when a male author like Matt Haig writes warm-hearted, life-affirming novels (see my August 2014 post on “To Be A Cat”) his work is praised as profound, but when a female author does it her books tends to be dismissed as sentimental Chick Lit.

I do concede that if the sort of relationships you like to read about in Fantasy mainly culminate in rape, mutilation or gruesome death, this rather gentle novel probably isn’t for you. The focus is on the witches’ innermost feelings and much of the magic is of a therapeutic kind – such as “Break-up Brownies” made with pinches of magnolia for dignity and celandine petals for joys to come. Having said that, the story is darker than you might expect from the opening chapters. Cruel things happen to several of the characters and magic isn’t shown as able to solve all problems or prevent all ills. Some of the plot twists are rather predictable. Others may give you a jolt. You could class “The Cambridge Witches” as a Romance but it doesn’t just feature romantic love.  There are many different kinds of love in the story, including love between friends and siblings and between parents and children. Types of infatuation which can be mistaken for love are cleverly depicted and I like the fact that van Praag seems equally interested in lovers of all ages, from teenage Noa to sixty-something Héloise. The men in this book do tend to be either very nasty or very nice but the women are satisfyingly complex.

The way that van Praag combines compassion with sharp analysis when writing about her female characters, and the emphasis on the little comforts of daily life, made me think of her as a mildly pagan version of Elizabeth Goudge (see my September 2012 post on Goudge’s classic children’s novel “The Little White Horse”). van Praag is a very sensual writer. I don’t mean that her work is erotic (though there are a couple of steamy sex scenes in this novel) but that she revels in sensory appreciation of the world and is excellent at describing how things look, sound, feel or taste. The visual arts are important in this novel and van Praag made me see Santiago’s mesmerising seascape paintings which remind Noa “of Turner’s tranquil sunsets, with a slightly sinister edge, as if sharks swim in the purple seas and black crows caw through the red skies.” We’ve all read about corruption and fraud in the art-world but this book comes up with an entirely new form of art-crime. The joy of reading and discussing books with like-minded people is celebrated in this novel and plays a major role in Héloise’s recovery – though not quite in the way she expects. Then there is the food…

The wonderful tastes and aromas of Cosima’s Café Gustare reminded me of my own favourite Sicilian café (it’s called Dolce & Salato if you are ever in Cheltenham). Food is shown as a tangible expression of love, such as the picnic Cosima prepares to share with her adored husband – sour cherry and chocolate cupcakes, goat’s cheese and pesto pizzas, orange oil canoli, and lemon and lavender cake. Cosima’s magic melds traditional herbalism with the Great British Bake-Off. The book even includes full recipes for delights such as “Spicy Chocolate Cake – To Ensure Wishes Come True” and “Very Simple Sicilian Biscuits – For Domestic Bliss”. In the early stages of the plot, van Praag gets a lot of humour out of the wrong person eating an enchanted biscuit. Later food plays a more poignant role, summing up someone’s character. Café Gustare definitely joins my list of Fantasy places I should love to visit.

I wasn’t entirely convinced by this novel’s modish argument that keeping secrets from people close to you is always harmful. I think I’ll still plump for traditional British reticence. Nor does “The Witches of Cambridge” have as strong a central concept as van Praag’s last two Cambridge-set novels – “The House at the End of Hope Street” (a magical sanctuary for women who need a new start in life) and “The Dress Shop of Dreams” (a shop where the clothes endow women with qualities they lack) but if you love cake (and aren’t currently on a diet) this book is a mouth-watering treat. Until next time….
















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Geraldine Pinch