A LULLABY FOR WITCHES
Author: Hester Fox
Publication Date: February 1, 2022
Publisher: Graydon House
Augusta Podos has just landed her dream job, working in collections at a local museum, Harlowe House, located in the charming seaside town of Tynemouth, Massachussetts. Determined to tell the stories of the local community, she throws herself into her work–and finds an oblique mention of a mysterious woman, Margaret, who may have been part of the Harlowe family, but is reduced to a footnote. Fascinated by this strange omission, Augusta becomes obsessed with discovering who Margaret was, what happened to her, and why her family scrubbed her from historical records. But as she does, strange incidents begin plaguing Harlowe House and Augusta herself. Are they connected with Margaret, and what do they mean?
Tynemouth, 1872. Margaret Harlowe is the beautiful daughter of a wealthy shipping family, and she should have many prospects–but her fascination with herbs and spellwork has made her a pariah, with whispers of “witch” dogging her steps. Increasingly drawn to the darker, forbidden practices of her craft, Margaret finds herself caught up with a local man, Jack Pryce, and the temptation of these darker ways threatens to pull her under completely.
As the incidents in the present day escalate, Augusta finds herself drawn more and more deeply into Margaret’s world, and a shocking revelation sheds further light on Margaret and Augusta’s shared past. And as Margaret’s sinister purpose becomes clear, Augusta must uncover the secret of Margaret’s fate–before the woman who calls to her across the centuries claims Augusta’s own life.
I enjoy a good historical fiction read, and if there’s a touch of paranormal thrown in, so much the better. I really, really wanted A Lullaby of Witches to be a book that I loved. It isn’t a bad book – remember, my three stars means “fair to middlin’.” It just didn’t have quite the wow factor I’d hoped for from reading the description.
The story unfolds from two different viewpoints: that of Margaret, the only daughter of the wealthy Harlowe family in 19th-century New England, and that of Augusta, twenty-something in the present time.
Margaret is the wild child of her staid, upstanding family. Instead of pursuing proper womanly endeavors of the time, she’s off traipsing through the woods, finding ingredients to help the local women who come to her in the dark of night, seeking help with various issues. But the whispers of “witch” that attach to her can’t be ignored forever. Augusta, our modern twenty-something, has meandered into a life which no longer excites her. Her boyfriend is her boyfriend, well, because he’s there. She stays at her job as a tour guide for a historic jail because she doesn’t really know what else she might do. Their stories start to overlap when Augusta applies for a position with Harlowe House, a museum in the historical Harlowe home.
Augusta gets the job, and once she learns of the Harlowe daughter who may or may not have existed, nothing will do but that she find out the whole story. She digs and digs, and the flashbacks into Margaret’s life that she starts to get become ever more realistic hallucinations. What is Margaret’s sinister plan for Augusta? What does she think she can accomplish from beyond the grave?
I like the effective use of a dual timeline, and Hester Fox does it well here. Margaret’s story is written in language that seems more lyrical, and Augusta’s is distinctly modern, so there’s no confusion as to who is speaking. I also like the fact that we see Augusta learn to stand on her own feet. We see her grow from a young woman who’s really a bit of a doormat into one who learns to speak up for herself and to pursue the things that interest her.
Margaret’s dark powers, though, never seem to be fully fleshed out. She makes the (at the time) unpardonable mistake of not only falling for a boy who’s not considered a proper match for her, but of allowing herself to get pregnant out of wedlock. She helps women under the cover of darkness. But does she do anything truly evil? Well, no. (Except maybe the plans she’s got for Augusta.)
And I don’t get the “lullaby” part of the title. Is the lullaby intended for Augusta? For Margaret? I’m not entirely sure. There are snippets of a folk song at various places in the book, but it’s never clear that those snippets are lullabies, nor that they’re sung for witches. Some, indeed, appear to be from a love song.
All that to say, A Lullaby for Witches was a pretty good read – 3.5 stars rounded up to 4. Even with the things I didn’t like about the book, Fox’s writing style is very easy to read, Augusta is a likable protagonist, and the details in the story make it clear that she does an outstanding job of researching her time period. I’d like to read her other work to see how it compares.