One week ago, I stumbled across Alice Hoffman’s young adult novel, Incantation, at a small book store. I’m currently living in Lima, Peru, and although I speak Spanish, I’m not proficient enough to read full novels in Spanish yet. I found Incantation in the English language section, and it instantly captured my interest. The title alone promised something dark and bewitching, but upon learning of its setting, I knew it’d be educational and emotional, too.
Incantation opens in town in Aragon, in northeastern Spain. The year is 1500, and the country has recently entered into the Spanish Inquisition (a horrific event that would last for nearly 400 years). The story centers on Estrella de Madrigal, a 16-year-old girl living in a divided town.
Estrella has been raised Catholic, but her mother Abra has always taught her that all people are the same; we are “made from the same dust” and will “enter the same garden” upon death, but this was a secret lesson Estrella must never say aloud. Estrella is close to her family – and especially her mother and grandmother – and she’s a kind, warmhearted girl, if a bit innocent and naive.
At the start of Incantation, the effects of the Spanish Inquisition are starting to take root in Estrella’s town. She and her best friend Catalina watch as a Jewish man’s books are burned, and it becomes clear that religious differences will not be tolerated and, moreover, must be revealed.
Their town already has Jews and Muslims gated off in separate areas on the outskirts of their city. They are not to interact with Christians. But as the book moves forward, we watch through Estrella’s eyes as the townspeople grow more mistrustful and hateful. They start turning in their own neighbors, accusing them of being heretics and false conversos. Estrella starts to experience dissonance – these were good people, so why are they suddenly bad based on their different beliefs?
Estrella then starts to notice how different her own family is. In fact, they privately display all of the traits indicative of secretly being Jewish. She finally learns the truth, but her secret isn’t safe.
To make matters worse, Estrella has fallen in love with Andres, her best friend Catalina’s cousin (whom Catalina had planned on marrying). This drives a wedge between the two friends, and Catalina’s jealousy eventually turns to revenge. Incantation sees many good people killed in the name of Christianity, and with Estrella’s eyes now wide open, she realizes the danger she and her family are in.
Incantation is a short book – only 166 pages – but it packs a big punch. The horrors of the Spanish Inquisition are shown front and center, but with Estrella narrating the story, we get a more innocent perspective of discovery and growth. Alice Hoffman’s writing style is dreamlike, even hazy at times, softening the harshness of the book’s events. Against the dangerous setting, Incantation also spotlights relationships – between a daughter and her mother and grandmother, between two teenaged friends, through love and jealousy and betrayal. It’s a heavy and impactful book, and though it goes by quickly, it’s a story that will stay in your memory long after you’ve finished.
This was the first book I’ve read about the Spanish Inquisition, and as much as I loved reading it, Incantation was also very illuminating on a subject I knew little about. It’s a moving book, and I plan to read more both from Alice Hoffman and about the Spanish Inquisition.