In Rivka Galchen's 2008 debut novel, "Atmospheric Disturbances," a New York psychiatrist believes that his wife has been replaced by a simulacrum, an impostor who looks and acts just like her but isn't her at all. He explores quasi-scientific research and travels to his wife's native Argentina, looking for clues about her disappearance. This brainy, quirky novel, inspired by Jorge Luis Borges, Thomas Pynchon and other writers, dived deep into the mysteries of identity and authenticity, appearance and reality.
Galchen explores similar themes in her second novel, "Everyone Knows Your Mother Is a Witch." But in this case, she has transported us back to an early-17th-century German province ravaged by plague, famine, religious wars and the clash between superstition and the first glimmers of modern science. Based on real events, the story recounts the ordeals faced by the mother of pioneering astronomer Johannes Kepler — renowned for his laws of planetary motion — after she's accused of being a witch. If convicted, Katharina would be burned at the stake.
One by one, her fellow villagers come before the governor to accuse her of heinous acts — employing dark magic to cause injury, illness, even the death of children. Only a tanner believes her denials of witchcraft and stands by her, by serving as scribe for this illiterate peasant woman. Fueled by envy, greed and the inevitable misfortunes of living, gossip roils the village. Fear makes neighbor suspect neighbor.
Clearly, Katharina's brilliant son has inherited her faith in reason. She speaks her mind, refuses to suffer fools gladly, and believes that facts will save her. "Old ladies," she testifies, "can wish ill upon others. But God decides. It would be wrong to believe that a witch could overrule the plan of God."
Johannes writes letters on her behalf, but his erudition may work against her. This champion of the upstart science of astronomy could seem frightening to believers in the venerable guidance of astrology.
Meantime, we readers grieve that the information age has rotted into the age of misinformation and outright lies. Hence the novel's contemporary resonance. As Katharina's scribe says, when he was young, "I thought people were telling stories when they were telling the truth. Now I tell the truth and get accused of telling stories."
Katharina claims that she is "no more trouble than a goose." Readers may be pardoned for wishing that the author had made her more troublesome. In this portraiture, she is a widow who lives a quiet life, foraging for herbs, doing good deeds and nuzzling up to her granddaughter and her most faithful companion, a milk cow.
Judging by the numerous books cited in her acknowledgments, Galchen has hewed closely to the actual facts of Katharina's case. But the result is a surprisingly inert book.
Galchen hasn't made us smell the stench of the Devil's breath, snort at provincial fools, quail before heartless powers-that-be. A novel about witchcraft should feel ominous, should crackle with suspense. Where is the fury and the terror?
Dan Cryer is author of the biography "Being Alive and Having to Die: The Spiritual Odyssey of Forrest Church" and the memoir "Forgetting My Mother: A Blues From the Heartland."
Everyone Knows Your Mother Is a Witch
By: Rivka Galchen.
Publisher: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 272 pages, $26.