Book Review: The Third Witch by Rebecca Reisert
What's it About?
The Third Witch is a lively re-imagining of Shakespeare’s internationally famous play Macbeth, as seen through the eyes of a young girl, Gilly, who is an apprentice witch. Gilly has spent the last seven years working as a live-in servant for two elderly women, Nettle and Mad Helga, who live in dire poverty in a ramshackle forest hut.
Gilly has braved starvation, freezing winters, and dire poverty in order to fulfill her agreed seven years of servitude so that, on completion of this time, she will be taught the secret skills of traditional witchcraft.
But are Nettle and Mad Helga really witches, or are they simply lonely, superstitious old women desperate to keep Gilly nearby so she will look after them in their increasing old age?
Gilly is tormented by her memories of a happy childhood cut tragically short when Lord Macbeth killed her parents and their fellow villagers. Gilly escaped, but she has sworn vengeance on Macbeth.
The two frail women warn Gilly that her plan of revenge is deeply flawed, but she insists on going ahead with it despite the dangers to herself. Furious with Nettle and Mad Helga and their refusal to teach her magic, Gilly sets out on an adventure which might bring about the vengeance she desires but which could also mean her own death.
About the Author
Rebecca Reisert is a high school teacher, and The First Witch (2001) was her first novel. This was followed by Ophelia's Revenge (2003), which was a re-write of Hamlet. She does not seem to have published any novels since then.
Reisert has apparently written more than 30 stage plays, and is a high school English teacher. She does not seem to have a website or to have developed a web presence.
What's to Like?
This novel retains the major elements of Shakespeare’s play, including King Duncan's murder and Lady Macbeth’s increasing insanity. Yet it is not a dull, standard re-visit to a familiar tale. The Third Witch is an engaging and character-driven story which brings a totally fresh approach to Macbeth.
There is a strong impression of historical authenticity brought to the reader by some lovely descriptions of life with Nettle and Mad Helga, which stands in total contrast to the rigid hierarchy of social status within Macbeth's castle. The author has apparently visited in person many of the sites associated with Macbeth, which may have helped to create this strong sense of place.
Gilly herself is a flawed central character, which helps her to attract friends and enemies both.
I really enjoyed the descriptions of their life in the Scottish forest, and would have liked the practicalities of this tough existence to have been expanded upon further.
The witchcraft aspect of the story is pleasingly underplayed, and beyond the use of herbs in a medicinal context these two elderly womens' magic consists more of minor prophesies and conveniently overheard foreknowledge which they present to their advantage. Life in their forest home revolves more around day-to-day survival than anything remotely mystical or religious.
What's Not to Like?
To achieve her ambition of revenge upon Macbeth, Gilly hacks off her long hair and dresses as a boy. This is apparently enough to fool the people she works and lives in close proximity with within Macbeth's castle kitchens. Yet in the sixth paragraph of chapter 5, before Gilly leaves their forest home, Nettle says to Gilly, "You are almost a woman now." Considering the lack of physical privacy in any medieval castle, this deception would have not lasted for very long.
Even after Gilly manages to be invited to have sword fighting lessons alongside a prince, nobody discovers the truth of her gender, which seems too far-fetched for credibility.
Also, would a zero-ranking kitchen servant, who mostly spent their days scrubbing burnt pans and congealed crockery, have been likely to be offered such martial training opportunities?
The novel's ending naturally followed that set down in advance by William Shakespeare, and Gilly's own finale was unfortunately entirely predictable.
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© 2019 Adele Cosgrove-Bray