Cover to Cover

Spellbound: Inside West Africa’s Witch Camps
Karen Palmer
Free Press

A journey to the outlands of reason and belief, this immersive, The Serpent and the Rainbow–esque work of journalistic anthropology refutes the notion that our modern world is becoming ever smaller and more scrutable. During her three years in Ghana as an NGO worker, Palmer encountered a pervasive, magical thinking whose

stranglehold on the continent is as hard for an outsider to understand and appreciate as its rituals and traditions … Unseen, unbidden, and unconcerned with class divisions, income levels, or educational achievements, the belief in witchcraft brings sickness, death, and destruction to livelihoods and family bonds.

More than 3,000 Ghanaian villagers (mostly, but not all, women) have been judged guilty of supernatural malevolence and exiled to lives of destitution in one of six remote colonies. Interviewing these alleged witches, as well as purported victims, village chieftains, skeptics, and exploiters, Palmer comes to understand West African witchery as a living spirit world far removed from Western tropes, and wholly resistant to neocolonial remediation. In fact, she concludes, the deepest-seated superstitions here remain among the prime movers of daily life, imbuing ineffability with meaning—and ordering the universe accordingly.

The Widower’s Tale
Julia Glass

This remarkable well-crafted novel combines a beautifully paced, complex symphony of a plot with Glass’s great skill for slicing cleanly through behavior to psychological motivation. The situation suggests Anne Tyler’s territory: a longtime widower has managed to hold the world politely, if with a curmudgeonly air, at arm’s length for about 30 years, until now, at age 70, he falls unexpectedly in love. Set in a well-heeled Boston suburb, an idyllic nursery school in a many-windowed antique barn converted by an architect, and Harvard, where the widower worked as a librarian and his grandson is a student, the world of this book is, however, a far cry from Tyler’s Baltimore. Even the Guatemalan gardener is special, having first come to America as a guest of a Harvard archaeologist. Glass grounds this rarefied world with her usual vivid detail while tossing an impressive number of story lines into the air. She catches them all in the end to the accompaniment of fireworks.

Rose Tremain

The first chapter of the latest novel from the Orange Prize–winning Tremain delivers a minute study of the dissatisfactions of a young girl on a field trip on a hot day. The insights into psychology are penetrating; the aggressive quality of nature is forcefully and believably evoked; the prose itself is luminous. The reader finds much to admire and enjoy, even though the stakes don’t seem terribly high. And then the girl starts screaming. Set in the Cévennes region of France (known for its relentless mistrals and wild mountains), written in an unfaltering style, and peopled by robust characters with shameful, life-altering secrets and unbreakable emotional bonds, this is both a page-turning thriller packed with betrayal, murder, and love, and a gorgeous, meaty literary novel. Perhaps real life cannot unfold as neatly as this plot, but in fiction, such clarity satisfies.