Review: Aurora by Seraphina Madsen (2023)


The second novel by the author of the acclaimed Dodge and Burn (Dodo Ink, 2016) is surreal, speculative, read-in-one-sitting, feminist literary fiction inspired by The Master and Margarita and narrated by a djinn who is obsessed with the young American woman who has released him from a bottle.  

With sorcery, as everyone knows, there is no stopping it.” 


Born into Evangelical trailer trash poverty, Aurora finds her way into an elite prep school where she’s drawn into a circle of girls who form a Surrealist coven. Hell-bent on tapping into magic to subvert and transform reality, they encounter forces they should have left alone… A surreal adventure, an infernal fairy-tale, Aurora is a stunning novel that explores witchcraft from a radical new angle.


Huge thanks to Sam at Dodo Ink for sending me a copy of Aurora in exchange for an honest review. I did read this back in January but it has taken me a while to get my review up – apologies!

‘Witch lit’ is having a moment – it’s everywhere, it seems, and I for one am all for it. If you pick up Seraphina’s new novel expecting a bit of a spooky, hazily ambiguous, is magic real or isn’t it story, however, you’re in for a shock. This brilliant book feels more like a potentially dangerous source text, something I could imagine being locked up in the ‘strictly forbidden’ section of an occult library, perhaps put under a curse so that no one escapes reading it unscathed. I simultaneously absolutely loved it, and was genuinely afraid that in reading it, I was at risk of shattering my own notions of reality. That’s a powerful book right there.

The prose is a heady cocktail of the base and the sublime, sometimes switching modes within sentences, full of grit and beauty all at once. Narrated by a cherry pop downing djinn, whose footnotes zip forwards and backwards through the narrative, clarifying and complicating all at once, the story stretches and compresses time in a fascinating way. Sometimes years zip by within pages, at other times, a single episode is described in minute detail from several different perspectives. It’s mind-bendingly clever, and I felt disorientated whenever I took a (brief) break from reading.

Aurora is a compelling protagonist, and I found her as mesmerising as the narrator clearly does. Her early life, her treatment by the pastors, her grandmother’s determination for her to rise up out of the circumstances she was born into all make for a gripping start to the book. And we move on to the elite school, and the coven she forms with Sylvia and the Californian girls – there is a slight The Secret History vibe to this section, but the density of the intellectual and philosophical rigour behind the girls’ champagne-soaked exploration of magic sets it apart. Key texts are woven into the narrative – Jungian psychology, Surrealism, spiritualism of all kind, and so much more, thicken the intoxicating brew of the girls’ risky journey. As they go deeper into their investigations, you really feel that they are on the cusp of totally new discoveries – the narrative is so probing and urgent in its pursuit of the other side of reality that it creates a kind of tension and momentum that is unlike anything I’ve read before.

There is a shift again, towards the end of the book, and without spoilers, these sections were some of the hardest to read. Aurora’s power and trauma collide, and the results are dark and unexpected and shocking. It takes an incredibly skilled writer to drive a book of this intellectual heft to such a dramatic conclusion, and the last pages had me gasping out loud. There is so much in this book – art, literature, philosophy, religion, a sweet little bird called Dinky and an excellent black cat called Tu-tu – you’ll finish this with your mind fizzing and your sense of reality less stable than it was when you began. It’s an incredible achievement to write a novel from which the reader emerges dizzy and blinking, struggling to readjust, changed by what they just read, and that it what Seraphina Madsen has done with Aurora.

Aurora by Seraphina Madsen is published by Dodo Ink and is available to purchase here.


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