The Witch of Napoli, by Michael Schmicker

23710526Based on the life of Eusapia Palladino, Michael Schmicker’s The Witch of Napoli tells the story of a woman who baffled science at the end of the nineteenth century.

Tomaso Labella had just landed a job as a photographer for the Neapolitan newspaper, Mattino, when he is assigned to photograph a woman who is gaining a reputation as a medium. As soon as he sees Alessandra Poverelli, he fall instantly in love. Alessandra is rough, a peasant, but fierce and unwilling to let anyone get the best of her. Though Tomaso is our narrator for the entirety of The Witch of Napoli, this is really Alessandra’s story. She’s rough and vulgar. She makes mistakes left and right. And yet, few things can keep this woman down for long.

A friend arranges for Alessandra to be tested by a noted scientist and skeptic from Turin, Dr. Camillo Lombardi. The test takes place in Alessandra’s apartment in the slums of Naples. Lombardi is not happy about this. He’s in a particularly bad mood as the test begins, but Alessandra manages to win him over when the séance is visited by the spirit of Lombardi’s mother. A table levitation and some raps later, Lombardi is a convert. He offers Alessandra 4,000 lire if she agrees to a series of scientific experiments over the course of six months—if she can keep her temper, not engage in any scandals, and perform her inexplicable feats. Tomaso is hired on as companion and photographer for the trials.

The Witch of Napoli is narrated in whirlwind fashion. The short chapters zip along as Alessandra and Tomaso travel to northern Italy, France, Switzerland, German, Poland, and England. Schmicker never reveals how Alessandra does her tricks. Her séances are presented as if she is a genuine medium. Over time, the stress of being a “trained monkey”—as Alessandra claims when she reaches a breaking point in Germany—diminishes her powers. It doesn’t help that the Vatican has sent in one of their best investigators to dig up dirt about her early life. And yet, in spite of all of this, Alessandra is such a winning character that you can’r help but root for her, hoping that she’ll find a way to defeat her enemies at last.

I received a free copy of this ebook from NetGalley, in exchange for an honest review. 

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