Madison Smartt Bell’s The Witch of Matongé Reviewed by Caryn Coyle

The Witch of Matongé by Madison Smartt Bell, Concord Free Press, 2022, 258 pages. ISBN 978-0-9835851-8-3

The first thing that will strike you about Madison Smartt Bell’s new novel, The Witch of Matongé, is the beautiful language. This is not a typical narrative. It is startling, and the depth of what is described is thrilling.

In the beginning, the viewpoint appears to be omniscient. However, the witch of the novel’s title is actually narrating and her unique manner of speaking is exquisite. She uses a bowl of water to understand what is happening in order to tell the story. And what a tale! The action is as vividly described as the characters and the reader is compelled to turn page after page:

Of many threads, which one to follow? They move in the beaks of bright-colored birds, darting to lace the patterns of tapestry, warp and woof, compounding an image that as yet does not come clear. In the old times there were birds who wove extraordinary fabrics, or so the old ones say – robes of emperors and courtesans – and in the cloth the figures moved and acted out their stories.

Paris, the setting of the novel, is well documented as it would be by a writer who lived there. Bell also weaves French into the narrative, sparingly and usually translated. It adds another layer of richness to his work:

Suppose one crosses La Rue Monge from Lasarénes de Lutéce, and climbs one side or the other of the double staircase framing the green metal lion’s head that vomits clear but not necessarily potable water into the basin below, one arrives in what is called la Rue Rollin, though it is really more an alley, or impasse – heavily cobbled and just a block long. Across from the alley’s opposite end is a plaque informing passersby that Ernest Hemingway once inhabited the building to which it is affixed. To the left, is la Place de la Contrescarpe with its fountain and flowers. To the right, the café Le Descartes, favored by students for its relatively low prices, with a couple of brown rooms in the interior and a dozen small tables.

One of Bell’s main characters, sits in the café Le Descartes. There are four main characters; the American, “blan…robed in his white skin…about forty,” who sits in the café. He is one of three suitors of Jaelle, the beautiful barmaid, who is “…pretty – no, more than that. Small, small-waisted, with long hair black as a crow’s wing. Her eyes are dark as well, but this kind of darkness is sparkling.” The other two are Abu, a young, perhaps sixteen year old Arab who works menial jobs at the same bar with Jaelle and Jean-Robert, a painter of Haitian descent, whose “Caribbean childhood was surrounded by servants.”

Jaelle and the three men who crave her, interact in a crescendo of exciting scenes that truly shock. One would have to read the novel to discover them. The author tempts us on page 100:

Here we are in the dead center of our story, as if in the still eye of a hurricane.

All that Madison Smartt Bell has written is carefully articulated and it is a pleasure to read; to guess what will happen next. Which of Jaelle’s suitors does she prefer or does she even fancy one over another? Why is the American in Paris? Is Abu as impressionable as his young age implies? Will Jean-Robert receive justice? 

When we finally meet the witch, midway through the novel, Jaelle is visiting her:

So Jaelle turns and shudders in the bed, throwing off her cover that feels too confining, now that her limbs have begun to loosen, separate. Now that her arms and legs are turning into wings.

Oh la, what should it matter, the wandering thoughts of an old woman, rocking gently on the back legs of her wooden chair, which have cut grooves, over the years, in the linoleum of her kitchen floor. I have been in my life both an inmate of mental institutions and also on their staffs from time to time, thanks to one of their doctors who perceived I was at least as skilled as he in the reading of dreams, and that I could as often as a clinical psychologist look into someone’s mental conundrum and see the solution waiting there, like the Minotaur in the center of the maze.

Without giving away the ending, one cannot grasp what will be revealed, or when. The Witch of Matongé erupts in superbly written prose.

A few words about the novel’s publisher, the Concord Free Press, an “ongoing experiment in publishing and community that inspires generosity.” The publisher’s advisory board includes Russell Banks, Joyce Carol Oates, Tom Perrotta, Francine Prose, among many others. The novel is free and all the Concord Free Press asks is that you support a charity or help someone in need. Order your free book here:

© Madison Smartt Bell and Caryn Coyle

The Witch of Matongé is Madison Smartt Bell’s seventeenth novel.  His novel, All Souls Rising (1995), was nominated for a National Book Award, the Pen/Faulkner Prize and won the 1996 Anisfield-Wolf Award.  He has also written biographies of the Haitian revolutionary Toussaint L’Ouverture, Antoine Lavoisier, the father of modern chemistry and the novelist, Robert Stone, along with three books of short stories, a nonfiction book of essays on Baltimore, a memoir of his journeys to Haiti and two text books on creative writing.  He teaches writing at Goucher College.

Caryn Coyle is an editor at The Loch Raven Review.

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