‘Romance, magic and enchanted pastries’: The Witches of Cambridge by Menna van Praag

Arenike Adebajo 11 May 2016

Amandine Bisset and her friends are special: they are all professors, all have magical powers, and are members of the ancient Cambridge University Society of Literature and Witchcraft – wish I’d seen that stall at Fresher’s Fair. When they’re not levitating over the roofs of colleges for their midnight book clubs, they’re dealing with a whole host of personal problems. Amandine is an empath, but can’t tell if her husband is cheating on her. Her student Noa blurts out other people’s secret thoughts, which hasn’t made her very popular with the other first years. Kat, a Maths professor at Trinity, is being friend-zoned by her best friend George but is unwilling to use magic to win him over. Meanwhile, her little sister Cosima is planning to seduce him with her enchanted pastries. When the enigmatic Brazilian artist Santiago whirls into Noa’s life, the witches of Cambridge come together to face their biggest challenge yet.

The Witches of Cambridge is great escapist fantasy to get away from revision. The book focuses more on the personal lives of its characters than on university life itself. It’s a nice reminder that there’s more to Cambridge than work: Van Praag’s sensual descriptions of Cosima’s baking made we want to throw down my essay and retreat to Fitzbillies. Recipes from Cosima’s bakery are featured at the back of the book, which look like they would be fun to try out.

Despite its imaginative premise (I very much wish the Cambridge University Society of Literature and Witchcraft was real), The Witches of Cambridge isn’t much more than a light read. It doesn’t pull off the present tense particularly successfully, and the dialogue is often quite flat. Magic and the history of the society are very much in the background, but the characters are their relationships aren’t fleshed out enough to draw you in. If you’re looking for the immersive world-building of the Harry Potter series, this is isn’t the book for you. Although the book is centred on female characters, frustratingly a lot of the time they only end up talking about men. For us non-magical Cambridge students, there are a few noticeable anomalies: ‘tutorial’ instead of supervision, Noa’s seemingly endless amounts of free time (to be fair, she does History of Art) the author stating both that she’s at Emmanuel and at Magdalene. Although street names and colleges are name dropped, as much as I would like to believe in it, the Cambridge of the book isn’t really brought to life.