An ancient illuminated manuscript, written by a woman no less, has been discovered in a cellar in Germany. The old woman who found it has contacted Professor Gertrude Eisenberg, a doctor who specializes in Middle High German. When Dr. Eisenberg examines the manuscript, she discovers the story of a young girl who lived 900 years ago. That manuscript is The Book of Gothel, a can’t-miss read from Mary McMyne.
[Note: While I am reviewing this novel independently and honestly, it should be noted that it has been provided to me by Redhook for the purpose of this review. Warning: My review of The Book of Gothel contains some spoilers!]
The Book of Gothel is a story within a story
When Frau Vogel reaches out to Dr. Eisenberg, she is overjoyed. Dr. Eisenberg has been struggling to find material for her project on the treatment of women in medieval German illuminated manuscripts and this discovery feels tailor-made.
She rushes off to Germany to see if the manuscript is everything the old woman promised. Frau Vogel leads the doctor into an ancient cellar and presents her with a lockbox that contains the codex she discovered.
Dr. Eisenberg is almost overcome by the condition and beauty of the book. Once she confirms that she can in fact read the medieval German script, Frau Vogel leaves her to begin reading, telling her “I’ll be upstairs… I want to know everything”.
The rest of the book is the translation of the codex (until the very end, when we bookend Dr. Eisenberg’s story). Mother Gothel begins by declaring that the codex is a true account of her life. Although she goes by the name of the tower she lives in and is best known for kidnapping a princess (Rapunzel), she tells us that’s not the whole story.
Or at least not the true version. She’s heard many retellings of her story over the years and has decided to set the truth down for posterity. Her story is the real story of The Book of Gothel. It’s an amazing tale of heartbreak, terror, and courage.
The story of Haelewise, daughter of Hedda
Mother Gothel wasn’t always a witch living in a tower. She began her life as Haelewise, the daughter of a midwife and a fisherman. They lived in a small village in twelfth-century Germany.
Haelewise’s mother originally grew up “in the woods” outside the village and often finds herself at odds with the clergy that controls life within its walls. It’s a time when even slightly disagreeing with the church can lead to the brand of heretic and ostracisation, if you were lucky. Torture and death if you weren’t.
Haelewise herself was an unusual child. Her eyes were black, without any iris color. They were also extremely sensitive to light. She also suffered from “spells”. During her spells, she would pass out. She could remain unconscious for a few minutes or a few hours.
Haelewise was never sure when a spell would happen or how long it would last. Her mother dragged her to every healer she could find but the spells persisted. Then her father insisted on trying religious cures but they were no better. The village began to believe that Haelewise was possessed by a demon.
When Haelewise was fifteen her mother suddenly became ill. Eventually, she died. Haelewise’s father buried her in the garden as she requested and Haelewise was left grief-stricken.
Compounding her grief, her father remarried within a few weeks of her mother’s death. Her stepmother already had two young boys and felt that Haelewise wouldn’t be a good influence on them. So Haelewise’s father moved into his new wife’s home and left Haelewise alone and without a means to support herself in their old house.
An epic tale of growth and power
The journey from that sad little fishing hut to the witch of Gothel tower is a long one with many twists and turns. Every time that Haelewise thinks she’s reached the end she has to go just a little farther.
Haelewise’s tale has everything that a good story should, action, adventure, villains, princesses, lovers, danger, and magic. But it’s more than just that. The story is also one of self-discovery. Haelewise tries to be what her beloved wants, her father wants, her mother wants, her grandmother wants, the abbess wants, and the queen wants. It’s only when she stops to decide what she wants that she really finds herself and is able to fully become the powerful woman she was meant to be.
The Book of Gothel is as much about the empowerment of the female principle in general as it is about the empowerment of Haelewise. Through her struggle, we see the struggle that all women face. And in her triumph, we see all women’s triumph.
She has to make difficult choices and accept sacrifices to reach her ultimate goal. But once she’s found her purpose nothing will stop her and it was both heartbreaking and inspiring to see her face her choices and the consequences head-on.
The Book of Gothel is an instant favorite
I have to confess, I was given The Book of Gothel by another reviewer who had started it but couldn’t finish it. They said they were having a hard time getting into it. I was a little sad because I had wanted to review The Book of Gothel before they took it.
But then I started reading it and I was shocked. I loved it from the very beginning. There honestly wasn’t anything I didn’t like about this story. By the end, I was crying and felt so happy because I forgot for a minute that it was fiction.
Books that touch this deep don’t come along every day. It has earned a favored spot on my shelf. I think that all women should read The Book of Gothel to find their hidden power. All men should read it too so they can see why we need balance in the world. Read Mary McMyne’s The Book of Gothel today and let’s bring the mother back into the world!
My Rating: 10/10
The Book of Gothel by Mary McMyne is available now! Are you interested in reading it? Let us know on Twitter or in The Cosmic Circus Discord. And if you haven’t already, check out our review of a novel about another strong female, Wonder Woman: Warrior, Disrupter, Feminist Icon!