Moss Witch by Sara Maitland

30th Jan 2014

Moss Witch by Sara Maitland
Sara Maitland uses Moss Witch to break one of the longest held literary taboos; that a writer should not pay her critics any heed. In a fascinating set of short stories, Maitland explores developments in science and then asks the industry experts to critique her stories. So far so good, but what a shame that she didn't ask an expert on feminism to get involved...

Writers are always eager to claim that they don’t listen to professional critics. For Books’ Sake and Beyoncé favourite Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie makes a point of never reading reviews of her books, and she’s not alone.

W.H. Auden referred to the practice as “harmful” and Arnold Bennett preferred to measured the length of his *ahem* reviews, rather than read them.

There’s a great Chekhov quote where he sums up what most writers experience when they make the mistake of reading their own reviews;

“I’ve been reading reviews of my stories for twenty-five years, and can’t remember a single useful point in any of them, or the slightest good advice. The only reviewer who ever made an impression on me was Skabichevsky, who prophesied that I would die drunk in the bottom of a ditch.”

In Moss Witch, Sara Maitland flips all that perceived wisdom on its head. Not only does she read and acknowledge her critics, she also gives them a couple of pages at the end of each chapter.

Yep, each chapter is a short story based on a different branch of science and is followed by the leading expert in that field offering a review of Maitland’s work.

The opening story, Her Bonxie Boy, is based on bird migration. A scientist studies birds while waiting for her love to return from his travels.

It’s not subtle but it is an invigorating read and nicely sets the tone for the rest of the book. HBB is followed by stories of a two face boy, and a meditation on the genetic possibilities of such a person, a group of apes learning to laugh, and a history of the development of language, and the Moss Witch of the title, who commits a brutal act and is then commended by the UK’s leading moss expert for her use of Aplodon wormskjoldii to hide her crime.

By the end of the story there was as much of a need for a paragraph on the history of feminism as there was for a page on geology and this reviewer spent the rest of the book braced for more foolishness.Maitland adopts a variety of story-telling styles, from fairytale through to stream of conscious, and her understanding of the subject areas is impressive.

All the experts are fairly complimentary and take the stories as a jumping off point for elaborating on their favourite hobby horses. And kudos to Maitland for getting them involved; it leads to a rich, multi-layered book and allows the reader to learn about areas of science which can frequently seem impenetrable to the layperson.

But! There is one story that will make any woman who spends any time on the internet gnaw her own knuckles off with frustration. In A Geological History of Feminism a retired science teacher explains the 2nd wave of feminism to her niece, via the movement of tectonic plates. A brief synopsis;

Aunt / Maitland’s proxy: “Hello young person! Did you know that there was once a mystical moment called FEMINISM that existed only when I was young in the 60s and 70s and has now been completely forgotten?”

Niece / generic young person: “Whaaa? I had no idea that FEMINISM and WOMEN’S LIB existed because I am too busy sexting and callously trampling over everything the feminists of yesteryear gave their lives to accomplish!”

It could be that Maitland deliberately attempted to create two women living in a bubble and that she is personally aware that we’ve now moved onto the fourth wave.

But the fact that the niece keeps calling feminism “women’s lib” (which I am yet to hear outside of a 1970s sitcom) gives a slight indication that Maitland was so busy concentrating on the science she missed how back-breakingly predictable this story was becoming.

By the end of the story there was as much of a need for a paragraph on the history of feminism as there was for a page on geology and this reviewer spent the rest of the book braced for more foolishness.

There is still a great deal here for the reader in terms of the science discussed and Maitland’s ability to develop a unique tone and narrative for each story.

Her complete lack of comprehension when it comes to modern day feminism does, however, cast a shadow over the book and any feminists out there not wishing to be patronised are advised to give it a miss.