‘Have you Asked?’
‘Mammy said I should know when it was right. But I don’t like to think of it. She told me stories and they scared me. I’m not going to invite it in. I’m too scared and I don’t mind who knows it. There’s a lot of it I just don’t care for.’ [loc.1386]
Just after the second world war, Mammy Cullen -- local midwife, illegal abortionist and probable witch -- took in a baby girl. By 1966 Fern has grown to adulthood, and Mammy has taught her everything she knows. But it's the Sixties, times are changing, and Fern faces the collision of two worlds: the old hedge-witchery and folklore of her upbringing against the tawdry glamour of hippies and the formal training of the NHS. She's fascinated by the existence of cosmonaut Valentina Tereshkova: she's haunted by hares.
Then one of Mammy's 'patients' dies, and Mammy herself falls ill and is admitted -- confined -- to hospital, leaving Fern alone in the cottage they shared. She begins to realise that Mammy, with her comprehensive knowledge of local scandals ("the names of the fathers ... the names of fathers of illegitimate children whose mothers had come too late, or without firm intention; the names of fathers who weren’t, because of Mammy’s intervention, to be; the names of fathers who did not know their sons and daughters; and the names of fathers who could not father. [loc.641]), is seen as a threat by many in the community. Suddenly Fern has no protection: rent on the cottage is in arrears, there's a Doctor from Cambridge keen to talk to her, and her friend Judith is concocting schemes that Fern isn't at all comfortable with.
Joyce makes interesting juxtapositions: the carefree randomness with which the hippies get stoned contrasts with Fern's careful measuring of the ingredients for her various potions; Fern's knowledge of childbirth and pregnancy does nothing to prepare her for sexual intimacy with the dashing Arthur.
It's hard at times to work out what is really ('really') happening. Some of Fern's experiences seem to take place in a different world. Yet what she learns there helps her overcome the pettiness and corruption of the community: by the end of the book, Fern is a different person, one more suited to living in the changing world which has intimidated and confused her for so long.
I'm not sure I liked this book. I didn't especially like Fern, and the claustrophobia of village life was far too familiar from my own childhood. (There were people who said my mother was a witch. They were probably joking. Probably.) But The Limits of Enchantment has more depth, more humanity and more realism to it than most of the fantasy novels I've read in the last few years.