Book Review – -The Errors of Dr Browne by Mark Winkler
© Steven Boykey Sidley
Firstly, Mark Winkler is a witch. I know this for a fact, which I will get to presently.
Secondly, in my last review of a Mark Winkler book (Due South of Copenhagen) I claimed he was SAs best novelist, which I then walked back, not wishing to engage in hyperbole, and settled for ‘one of the SAs best novelists’.
Now Winkler has written this book. and made me regret that I walked back the compliment. Damn. I really do think he is SA’s best novelist.
Many reviewers have commented on Winkler’s range – each of his books is markedly different, in tone and characterization, time-period, plot. As though spouting from entirely different authors. This is very creepy. Witch-like, to be honest.
The book is about one of England’s last witch trials which took place in the early 1660s in the town of Lowstoft (called Leystoff in the book). It is written in the first person, by one Dr Thomas Browne, Doctor of Physick. He was a real person – doctor, author, philosopher, teacher; his writings have survived. He was also principal investigator on the case, and an expert evidence-giver in court. The book, this memoir of the trial is fiction. The Doctor is not.
Here is what Winkler does. He summons from his witchy brain the language of the mid-1600s (much research here, as per his Appendix) and has the Doctor tell his story. I don’t know how people spoke back then, but the music of the character’s language and internal dialogue, the cadences, the sentence structures, left me in no doubt that this was exactly how they spoke. So convincing was it that I could hear the dialogue, a sort of ghostly echo while I read. Witchcraft, obviously.
But more than that. Individual sentences wrought by Winkler in that historical English are so striking that I reread many of them, numerous times; it is one of the great joys of the book. Do not try to read this book fast, you will miss its pleasures.
As a second layer of narrative has the Doctor fighting internal philosophical battles with himself throughout, the most important of which his love of Church and love of science and the tension between them. The difference between conjecture and deduction and hypothesis and empiricism and faith. This gives the reader a fine microscope of the thinking of the time – superstition, religion and the emerging logic of the coming Enlightenment circling each other in uneasy proximity.
Of course, there are no witches, any more now than then, but that was not the common belief then. It was accepted without question, confirmed by scripture, requiring only sharply directed gossip and malice to send countless thousands of (mainly) women to the gallows and the fire-stake throughout the history of Christendom, finally drawing to a close in the mid-18th century.
The plot of the book swirls around two accused women, the clearly innocent and unyielding Rose Cullender and the sadly demented Amy Denny, incarcerated in stomach-wrenching conditions in the town jail. Accused of terrible things, including harm to children. Add to these the less than savory circumstances surrounding in-court and behind-the-court intrigues – judge, officials, witnesses, lies, personal interests, and the obfuscations of evidence and invisibility of level judicial playing fields and you have a tense courtroom drama, except played out in the mid-1600s in the language and customs of its time.
It is not a spoiler to say that our good doctor does not save the women; once charges of this nature were laid, there was rarely any other outcome. But the effect of the trial on the good doctor and his own feelings around bewitchment bring the book to its sharply satisfying conclusion.
I read most of Winkler’s books before he and his wife Michele became personal friends with my wife and me. I try not to read friends’ book, there is a natural bias, but in his case it is hard not to do.
But I have to reveal something. After they leave our house for dinner, Mark pretends to get in his car to drive home. But he doesn’t. There is a broomstick in the trunk and he takes it out and flies away.
I have seen it. I swear.