I keep saying that I don’t review books, but what a pleasure it is to read and join the chorus of characters in praise of a book whose author I know well.
I have just finished Audrey Whitson’s new novel, The Death of Annie the Water Witcher by Lightning (NeWest Press 2019). In fact, I finished the book in one day, which is rare for me.
When I entered Annie Gallagher’s community, Majestic, a drought-stricken prairie town in Alberta, a town whose citizens have seen hard times and miseries, I didnt’t expect to stay in the story through the whole of a miserably grey day. I was in need of a book that would make me laugh, lift me up, and take me away from the hard scrabble lives of the world.
I know Audrey Whitson and her writing. People and place are exquisitely drawn; alive and real and haunting. The story of laying Annie to rest is told from the alternating points of view of eight (and I apologize to any of the citizens of Majestic and surrounding district if I’ve neglected to count them in) with Annie herself chiming in to reflect back on her life. Once their characters made it clear that they would sit with Annie through a wake, the night following the wake and and up to the funeral the next day, I wanted to be there with them. It’s tricky business, allowing so many voices to create the narrative in a story, but Audrey Whitson has linked these people together not only as people who loved Annie, but as community. Relationships with Annie emerge, and so too do the intimate details of the lives of her neighbours.
There are so many moments in this novel when I’m struck by the ways in which Annie’s death are redemptive and magical. In a drought ridden community where crops are failing, Annie is witching for water for roses. The Roman Catholic church is on the verge of closing. The hope for Majestic is that it will live on through an influx of city folk. The church will become their living spaces – lofts. The business deal is underway, the deconsecrating of the church is scheduled. But Annie’s funeral gets in the way.
Oh, what a funeral. When the aged Bishop arrives, I find my “favourite” character.
“I can tell some want to jump out of their pews, out of their places, want to hold her last witching branch in their hands and join the old bishop in dancing the water.”
The ending to this book is one of the most beautiful and astonishing I have read in a very long time.