Witchcraft! Superstition! Casting the evil eye!
Magic potions! Strange illnesses! Moisture and stench everywhere!
Black bile overflowing! DIY blood-letting!
So much excitement, right?
Not really – or not in the way you’d expect.
I’ve always wanted to read a novel without any plot or story whatsoever, but I realize that even the most experimental novelists tend to fall victim to the necessity of action, so in the end there usually is a story of some kind even in the most experimental fiction.
Friedenthal does admirably well here – there’s almost no story in The Willow King. Sure, there’s a young scholar, Laurentius, who is forced to leave the university of Leiden due to unspecified theoretical complications, and he travels to Tartu to be out of harm’s way. During his first week at the Tartu university, he’s constantly ill and feverish, so his main goal is to get well again (in this he fails). His other main goal is to keep a low profile and avoid drawing attention to himself (in this he fails even more spectacularly).
Basically this is it – but it’s still hugely exciting because even though there’s no story, there’s plenty of atmosphere and a re-creation of an earlier world. A 17th century, pre-Enlightenment atmosphere pervades the novel, and the world Friedenthal describes is a dark, muddy, chaotic one, a world where superstition and science are still deeply connected; where illnesses are cured either by magic potions or by some good old-fashioned blood-letting or enema; where it’s difficult to distinguish witches from people who are capable of recognizing witches (this latter ability is also suspicious, of course), and the thought that perhaps witches don’t exist hasn’t yet taken root.
And by the time I get to the end I’m not sure whether they exist or not, either – I assume the fever Laurentius suffers from also takes its toll on my brain.