Publication Date: March 17, 2015
Formats: Hardcover, Ebook
Indie Next Choice for April 2015.
I feel it’s important to state that I would categorize The Witch of Painted Sorrows as horror. The description did give the impression of horror, but I hoped that I was mistaken. After all, the Reincarnationist novels that I had read by M. J. Rose did not seem horrifying to me at all. They are books about fearless explorers of strange phenomena. They encourage readers to broaden their ideas and experience rather than narrowing them. I really liked the premise of the Reincarnationist series which is why I agreed to participate in the blog tour for The Witch of Painted Sorrows and accepted a free copy from the publisher via Net Galley.
I am not a fan of horror and I prefer not to read it. I define horror as a xenophobic genre which portrays the strange or unexplained as being universally evil and fearsome. Within the dark universe of a horror novel the unknown should never be explored because it will invariably pose a threat. Based on the horror fiction to which I've been exposed, I know that the protagonist isn't supposed to venture beyond the familiar because that world is flat. He or she could fall off the edges of the map into the maw of some eldritch creature which lurks there. Characters in a horror context should also never try to understand or communicate with beings from beyond our reality. This is especially dangerous if they’ve been stigmatized. If your grandmother warns you against doing something, she will always be right in a horror novel. This makes horror very predictable. The Witch of Painted Sorrows seemed to be saying “I told you so” to everyone who ever ignored a warning from their mothers or grandmothers.
It’s not that I think that there are no monsters. There most certainly are. They walk the streets of my urban environment. I hear about them on the news. I am an unabashed escapist. There is more than enough ugliness and horror in real life. I don’t want to encounter it in the pages of a book.
I’d much rather be inspired. I think that a woman like Sandrine, the central character of this book, should be inspiring rather than a cautionary tale. She escaped from a terrible marriage and she had aspirations to become an artist. She was evolving and becoming stronger. Yet like many women in horror novels, she makes the wrong choices. Her choices are self-destructive because she isn’t aware of alternatives. The ethos of horror constricts choices. There is more than one sort of relationship possible between the dead and the living. There was potential for the evolution of a symbiotic relationship in this novel rather than a parasitic one. That would have been a very different story, but it would have been more original and it would have been more worthwhile to me as a reader.
I did like the historical aspect. This novel introduced me to the real mythic symbolist painter, Gustave Moreau. Rose seemed to be emphasizing his more conventional side in The Witch of Painted Sorrows, but there were hints in the novel that he could be more of a radical than his contemporaries realized. I found an essay on the influence of Gustave Moreau that gave me a better sense of who he was an artist. The author of this essay believes that he prefigured the surrealists and abstract expressionists. Scroll down to the examples of his work below the article which show that he was a man very much ahead of his time.
I also liked the approach of Rose’s fictional architect, Julien Duplessi. When he spoke about his philosophy, I thought I was reading a speech by Howard Roark in Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead. Then I remembered that Howard Roark had actually been based on the very real architectural genius, Frank Lloyd Wright. M.J. Rose was probably inspired by Frank Lloyd Wright as well.
On the other hand, I felt that a Jewish ritual that appeared in this novel would actually offend traditional Jews because of the manner in which it was conducted. Rose states in her Author’s Note that she believes that it was authentic. Whoever she consulted with on this subject was clearly uninformed about an important aspect of the traditional practice of Judaism. Orthodox Jews have a very strict code regarding contact between the sexes which would have prohibited a Rabbi from performing the ceremony as described. Due to my own Jewish upbringing, I realized this as I was reading the book and it took me right out of the narrative. Readers who are interested should look up Tzniut. The Wikipedia article that I’ve linked is a good introduction on the subject. Another useful Wikipedia article to consult on this topic is Negiah which is specifically about touching between the sexes. I also looked up how Jews have historically performed this ritual. It was normally performed in public in a synagogue in the presence of a minyan (which is at least ten men), and I don’t believe that there was any touching involved. If Rose wants to include an authentic historical Jewish practice in her work in the future, she should probably consult with someone who has a deeper understanding of traditional Jewish life.
Although there were parts of this book that I enjoyed, I can’t say that I liked it very much in its entirety. It wasn’t my sort of book. Other readers who are inclined toward horror would probably like it a good deal better than I did.