Book review – Practical Magic by Alice Hoffman

I hardly know where to start in reviewing Practical Magic by Alice Hoffman. I fell in love with it straight away and it is now firmly in my top twenty favourite novels of all time! I have to confess that I love books with magic realism and Practical Magic has it in spades. I was blown away by the depth of understanding Alice Hoffman shows, in human nature, folk magic and all things love. The whole novel is almost a ‘how to’ manual for growing up and falling in love.

For more than two hundred years, the Owens women have been blamed for everything that has gone wrong in town.’

The opening sentence immediately suggests this is a story about witches. Of course, the wise women and healers had always been blamed when things went wrong for hundreds of years. It was part of folk superstition. It was the basis of the witch hunts and patriarchal domination of women. So it seems from the outset the women of this story have some ‘magical’ ability – enough to be the subject of the town’s suspicions.

Once a year, on midsummer’s eve, a sparrow would find its way into the Owens house.’

Midsummer’s eve is the time around the summer solstice. Evil spirits were said to wander during the summer solstice. It also marked the beginning of the end as days become progressively shorter. The sparrow itself is a bringer of luck, good and bad. In Greek mythology the sparrow was a symbol of love – fitting for this novel – while in English folk lore a sparrow flying into the home meant a foretelling of death. There is plenty of love and death in this novel so I’m guessing that Alice Hoffman used the sparrow to convey both meanings.

‘Crossed knives set out on the dinner table means there’s bound to be a quarrel, but so do two sisters living under the same roof, particularly when one of them is Antonia Owens.’

Alice Hoffman is brilliant in her understanding of teenage girls. Their capriciousness, self-doubt, half girl, half woman – she captures it all. One moment I found myself falling in love with these characters, the next I could see too much of myself reflected back. Sisters have a special bond, but growing up so closely with someone that is probably going through much the same emotional experiences, possibly just not at the same time, is a recipe for conflict in any house. But it is almost a universal truth that sisters love each other in a way that no two other people can. This is not the fairy tale of never ending love we are fed on as children. This is a love forged in shared experiences. This is a key theme throughout this novel. Although the story is about romantic love everything that happens revolves around the three pairs of Owens sisters, each at different stages of life.

‘On the morning of Kylie Owens’s thirteenth birthday, the sky is endlessly sweet and blue, but long before the sun rises, before alarm clocks go off, Kylie is already awake.’

The innocence of turning thirteen – reflected in the sweet and blue sky – is contrasted with the awakening of womanhood inside. Kylie knows something is different now that she is a teenager. She doesn’t know what it is yet. Is it her? Is it the way the world now sees her? Or is it some combination of the two? There is a magic about being thirteen. A time when you don’t even know who you are yet but there are so many demands placed on a young girl. Parents’ expectations, school teachers… boys!

‘All of the teenage boys down at the Hamburger Shack say, ‘No onions,’ when Gillian takes their orders.’

All of the teenage boys (and later the men) in this novel are obsessed with the Owens sisters. The sort of obsession that makes teenage boys forget what they were about to do. They forget where they were going or what they were about to say. They forget everything because one glimpse of one of the Owens sisters is enough to turn any teenage boy weak at the knees. In this way Alice Hoffman reduces teenage boys and men to gibbering idiots. There are very few men that are worthy of the Owens sisters (and by implication, very few men that are worthwhile, period!). I think in a way she is making fun of popular notions of romantic love and concepts like love at first sight. I see it as a warning to women not to be suckered in by flowers and gifts and words of love because there is something much deeper out there waiting for you. She does this by setting the novel in a world of magic realism that makes us question common conventions of what love is.

‘If a woman is in trouble she should always wear blue for protection.’

Blue is a symbol of many things in folk mythology, including protection. So why does Alice Hoffman think women need protection? Is it from men? Other women? Themselves? Maybe she means it as a symbol of protection against all of those things that drive a woman to be something other than who she is meant to be. This is another example of the magical realism that persists throughout this novel. The notion that we are surrounded by magic if we only know to look for it. The book is loaded with these superstitious beliefs, interwoven throughout the story so they seem like truths.

‘Two hundred years ago, people believed that a hot and steamy July meant a cold and miserable winter.’

Sally is practical and sensible. She spends most of her life trying not to believe the folk myths surrounding her aunts. She denies that anything happening in nature is a portent of something about to happen in her life. But all the while, Sally (and the reader) is drawn inexorably toward her own destiny. When we finally reach this point it seems as though it were always inevitable. I think Alice Hoffman is suggesting that we all have our passions and no matter how much we deny them we cannot avoid our own true natures.

‘Always keep mint on your windowsill in August, to ensure that buzzing flies will stay outside, where they belong.’

The use of mint has a long history dating back to early human civilisations. Historians have suggested mint was brought to England by the Romans. Regardless of its historical origins, it is little wonder mint has a place in folk magic because its strong smell would have suggested mystical powers. The use of mint in the context of Practical Magic suggests that we ignore such folk myths at our own peril. Do you dare not put mint on your windowsill? I know I will.

‘On the eighth day of the eighth month, the aunts arrive on a Greyhound bus.’

In a novel about independence, among other things, Alice Hoffman only gives a sketch of the aunts in the early chapters before turning her attention to the sisters, Sally and Gillian. We get to know them intimately, inside and out. We learn their innermost fears. We learn their secret desires. But overarching all of this is the example set by the aunts while the two girls were young. It is no coincidence that the aunts come back toward the end of the book when they are needed the most. It suggests that we can never run away from our past or our heritage. And ultimately it is this heritage that Sally and Gillian reclaim as they come to terms with themselves and ultimately discover the love they always longed for.

‘On the outskirts of the city the fields have turned red and the trees are all twisted and black.’

Magic realist novels had their origins in Latin and South America before spreading to other parts of the world. In case you couldn’t tell already I absolutely love reading magic realist novels and Practical Magic is no exception. The only way to judge a book is how it makes you feel when you’re reading it. So much of this novel spoke directly to my heart and made me laugh and cry and cry and laugh throughout. Now I’m going to have to watch the movie starring Sandra Bullock and Nicole Kidman (which I’ve never done) and Alice Hoffman’s latest novel The Rules of Magic is high on my wish list!


The first witch

The morning air was crisp and cool
When the first witch was burnt,
The day turned black as more and more
Were sent to the stake

Wise women of the earth,
Bending and shaping energy,
For the ancient ways
Brought healing to the land.

Every spell begins with a blank page

Every spell begins with a blank page,
connecting me to things I haven’t said;

putting thoughts into my incantation
for they cannot remain in the past,
ghosts of lips on glasses;

I’m not a bad person, I tell myself
I’m just lost with insecurities,
willing to sacrifice
to make my love spell come true.

I wake up with sounds inside me

I wake up with sounds inside me,
rhyming like a childhood spell;

to be a witch I hone my craft,
personal magic to navigate the world;

power – magic – destiny,
I call on that spiritual force;

trust myself to walk the path,
to let myself drift among secrets;

connecting me with nature
for she is who I am.

I believe in love spells

I believe in love spells
dark powers that twist the mind,
braided knot of hair to help me find the way
to creatures of the forest, dreamers,
moonstone and jade

shadows swallow the earth
where secrets die,
a few simple verses
that could turn an army
or win a man’s heart

hands held out – cold, like mine
but burning in the fog,
until there you are, soft of foot,
emerald eyes glittering,
innocent lips parted

I trace the lines upon your palm,
gypsy hair, blowing gently
to your beating heart
until there is just the two of us.

The Witch in the Mirror – Part 43

Ailis ran until her feet were sore. She was deep into the forest now, further than she’d ever been before. Every now and then she had to stop, leaning against a tree and panting until she had gotten her breath back. The forest stretched on and on around the edge of the lake, further than she could ever have imagined.

Surely she had lost the soldiers by now. They had nearly caught her this time. She was merely floating, just like she did every day when she could sneak away from her chores. She stood on the rock at the edge of the lake and just let herself hover in the air. She never went too far or too high. She didn’t want anyone seeing her or discovering she had magic. It was peaceful in the air. She felt more like herself—where she could imagine she was secretly a princess rather than just a blacksmith’s daughter.

But this time she had gotten careless and had drifted lazily toward the treetops. That is when she first saw the men in black cloaks. She had heard all about these men that wore black cloaks. The villagers were all terrified of them. And the worst of the lot was that sergeant with the scar on his left cheek. Three jagged lines—almost like someone had scratched him viciously, or in desperation, Ailis thought. She had made the mistake of looking up as he rode through the village once. He had stared at her with those dead eyes as though he wanted to devour her.

When Ailis saw the horsemen through the trees she quickly returned to the ground and started to run. She knew she could have flown away from them but she couldn’t be seen in the air.

Ailis heard a noise and began to run again. Her plan was to circle back around to the village and return by the coastal path. As Ailis neared the village she stopped running. She ran her hands over her skirt and blouse to straighten it and adjusted the scarf around her hair. She stopped by a wild apple tree and filled her basket. It would be a ready excuse if anybody stopped her. She tried to calm the fear in her stomach.

The sun rose high in the sky when she caught the scent of wood smoke from the village. Ailis heaved a sigh of relief. Just over the next rise and she would be back in the village safe and sound.

Ailis left the forest and walked across the field of heath that ran down to the beach. In the distance she could see the village’s fishing boats bobbing on the open sea. They wouldn’t return until evening with their catch.

She could hear hammering from the blacksmith’s forge and she smiled. It wasn’t so bad being the blacksmith’s daughter. It could have been worse. Bryn was a highly respected artisan in the village and that afforded Ailis more freedom from menial chores than some of the other girls her age.

Ailis took an apple from her basket and was just about to take a bite when she saw the four horsemen blocking her path.

‘You there. Girl. Stop.’

Ailis shuddered when she saw it was the man with the scar. She was frozen to the spot.

‘What business do you have out here? We have been hunting a young girl seen in the forest. What do you have to say for yourself?’

‘I—I was just fetching apples. To make my Da a pie.’ She tried to control the nervousness in her voice.

‘A likely story. Who is your da?’

‘The—the blacksmith—Bryn—the blacksmith.’

The sergeant looked at her more closely, searching her face. His black gloved hand involuntarily stroked the scars on his cheek.

‘How old are you, girl?’

Ailis felt tears well into her eyes but forced them back down. The pendant between her breasts was turning hot.

‘Just take her here, Hom. Nobody need ever know.’ The second horsemen leered at her. Ailis fought back the urge to wet herself.

‘This little one is not worth your effort.’

A woman appeared behind the horsemen. Hom turned in his saddle to see who dared address the black cloaks. It was just another peasant woman. Hom drew his sword. The sun glinted wickedly on the blade. He smiled viciously to feel its familiar weight in his hand.

‘Why don’t you go about your business, old woman, before I slay you right here.’

‘You don’t want to kill anyone today.’ She moved her hand from under her cloak. ‘Return to your camp.’

Hom looked at her uncertainly for a moment before sheathing his sword.

‘Come, men. Let us return to camp. We will take the wench another day.’

He glared at the woman and turned his horse. The four men rode away in a cloud of dust.

Ailis collapsed to her knees with shock.

The woman cupped her hand around Ailis’ chin and raised the girl to her feet.

‘Run home, child. You need to take more care with your gift. It’s not your time yet, but soon.’

Ailis looked questioningly into the woman’s eyes. They were dark but flecked with blue, like snowflakes.


Ailis found her feet moving quickly toward the village. She looked back over her shoulder.

The woman was gone.

The Witch in the Mirror – Part 42

Bea was in a good mood when she woke next morning. It was early but being a Saturday there was no need to dress and rush off to school. Outside she could hear the birds were waking. Bea yawned and rolled over to look at the ceiling. Everything in her room was familiar and comfortable. The dressing table and mirror, the clothes rack that held her dresses and her school bag was in the corner where she had tossed it last night.

She lay still with her eyes open and went through the events of the pat week. Her ankle still hurt a little but she had been able to walk on it. Josh had been so sweet coming over to see if she was okay. But what was up with Emily?

Bea sighed and slid to the edge of the bed. She walked over to the window. The sky was a pretty shade of pink this early in the morning. Over the garden Bea could see sunlight just hitting the spire of St Brigid’s Church peaking over the treetops. From a distance she could hear waves crashing on the beach. The tide must be in ― that’s when the waves sounded loudest. A ribbon of mist hung in the air above the beach. The morning’s stillness reminded her of something, but as usual it hung tantalisingly out of reach.

She picked up her dress and tiptoed across to the bathroom. She didn’t want to wake her grandmother so early. Bea dressed by the light coming softly through the window. She walked barefoot down the stairs to the front door. Bea paused for a moment to listen, but the cottage was silent. She closed the door softly behind her and filled her lungs with fresh morning air. It made her feel alive. The grass was damp and cold on her bare feet. She smiled and thought how her grandmother would scold if she knew. ‘You’ll catch your death of cold, child,’ Gramma would say. Bea walked across the garden to the gate that led down to the beach. She enjoyed being on her own. The day was starting to brighten. Bea paused at the top of the stairs and watched the waves. It was so peaceful.

She followed the path that led down from the back of the cottage. Small pebbles crunched under her feet as Bea reached the beach. The walk along the shoreline was her favourite and she headed toward the rocks at the northern end of the beach. Fishing boats were pulled up on the shore, turned upside down and strewn with drying fishing nets.

Bea knew she had been here before—some time ages ago. She just didn’t know when. The sound of the waves crashing against the pebbles reminded her of something she couldn’t quite remember. It was just another dim memory from somewhere in her past. As she made her way around the upturned fishing boats she turned and looked back toward the cottage at the top of the slope. A curl of smoke was rising from the chimney and Bea thought about her grandmother inside. She hoped she hadn’t disturbed her.

Bea moved further along the beach, reaching the tumble of rocks along the edge. She lifted her skirt and tenderly climbed amongst the rocks, carefully placing her feet away from the slippery moss.

It was then she heard the voices ― two male voices coming from a cave at the bottom of the cliff. One of the voices sounded cultured, aristocratic, while the other was a gruff seaman’s voice.

‘Don’t worry, m’lord. We can slip in under darkness and nobody will know anythin’ ‘bout it. You can trust us, m’lord.’

‘Very good, Wells. The French ship will anchor offshore next Sunday night. There will be a package to be collected from me at the manor. Do you think you can manage that?’

Bea crouched down behind a rock. She wasn’t used to coming across people on the beach. She thought of it as her beach. Her heart was racing. She was sure she recognised one of the voices, but she didn’t know anybody in Nangle, did she?

‘This package is very valuable but also delicate. You must take good care of it. The French captain will know what to do once you have her ― it, the package ― on board. Tell the captain I will follow next se’nnight and payment will be made in full once I know the package has been delivered. Do you have all that, Wells? You know what will happen if you fail me.’

‘Yes sir. Sunday night it is, to be sure. You can count on me, sir. I won’t fail you. That’s a promise.’

‘Go carefully with your promises, my friend. Just deliver the message and be ready for the package.’

The voices fell silent for a moment. Bea strained her ears to hear. Cautiously she peaked around the rocks to find the small cave was empty. There was no-one there.

The Witch in the Mirror – Part 41

The mountain peaks were shrouded by mist at this time of year. The sun was a soft golden globe hanging low in the sky and the water of the stream was cold and grey. All was quiet except for the faint sound of a girl’s voice singing as she made her way along the path toward the stream.

Ailis’ heart was full of love and her face shone in the dull morning light. Only last night Rogan had proposed to her and she had been breathless as she replied with a whispered ‘yes’.

She had woken early in the morning so she could get all of her errands done before her father returned from his blacksmith’s forge to have breakfast. She wanted to put him in a good mood for when Rogan comes to ask for her hand.

Ailis stopped to pick some wildflowers and placed them in her hair. She walked with a light-hearted step and smiled as she thought about the secret kisses Rogan had showered her with last night. She was excited to think of being the first of her friends in the village to be married. Most of them still hadn’t even held hands with a boy yet.

She reached the edge of the lake and stooped to fill the heavy wooden bucket. As water streamed over the edge of the bucket she struggled to lift it again, when a rough hand closed over hers. She turned with surprise as Rogan placed his lips against hers and the bucket fell back into the water.

‘Rogan, look what you’ve made me do!’ The bucket had begun to sink and Ailis pouted with her hands on her hips.

‘You are out early my love. I was hoping I might catch you before I saw your father.’

‘You will catch it if my father sees you with me.’ Her laugh was musical and Rogan grasped her around the waist and kissed her again.

‘Stop that,’ she squealed. ‘What about my bucket?’

Rogan bent to retrieve the sunken bucket. ‘Come, my sweet. You have work to do.’ He took Ailis’ hand and together they walked back toward the village.

The village was nestled around a small, windswept cove. Through the mist could be heard the roar of dark waves crashing on the pebbly beach. A path led away from the village toward the mountains where the shepherds took their flocks during the warmer months when the grass was flush and green. But they returned to the valley farms when the autumn mists began to descend.

Rogan was one of the shepherds and he had recently returned from several months in the mountains. But there was wasn’t much to occupy a shepherd during the winter months and he spent his days finding excuses to be alone with Ailis.

Ailis looked at him secretly as they strolled along the country path. He had wild black hair that shaded his mysterious eyes. Those eyes always seemed to be looking straight through her and Ailis shivered every time their gaze met. She never knew what he was thinking, but she felt hypnotised by his eyes; trapped by his gaze like a frightened deer; stripped naked so that he could see her soul — and then the spell would be broken by his rough kiss.

As they reached the door of Ailis’ cottage, Rogan bent to kiss her again.

‘No more until you have spoken to father,’ she said. Rogan grinned and Ailis curtseyed as she slipped through the door into the white washed cottage. Ailis closed the door and leaned against it with closed eyes and sighed. She had never been so happy and now all her dreams were coming true.

She pushed a lock of hair back into place and began to tidy the kitchen and prepare breakfast. The cottage was simple as befitted a blacksmith, but Ailis always kept it neat and tidy. She had been the housekeeper since her mother had passed away. Ever since then it had just been Ailis and her father.

Rogan stayed outside the door of the cottage for a moment, listening to Ailis singing as she worked inside. He picked up a stone and began tossing it in the air and catching it again. The ringing of the blacksmith’s hammer on the anvil punctuated the peaceful village air and Rogan turned away from the forge. Now is not the time to face the blacksmith, he decided.

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