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Delightful and Witchy: A Review of Against the Grain

A novel about a mountain biking coeliac witch, her relationship with her familiar – oh, and a sexy baker. Cassie Hart reviews.

If you'd told me that I would enjoy reading a book about a coeliac witch who loves mountain biking, I'd have laughed. I am not coeliac, and I swear I am one of those rare people who have, in fact, forgotten how to ride a bike. Against the Grain should not be a book that holds interest for me, yet author Melanie Harding-Shaw's passion for gluten-free food, eclectic bistros and biking drew me in.

Against the Grain is a self-published book, and one of the beautiful things about self-publishing is that there is space to write about the things you love, the things that are important to you, and get them out into the world. Harding-Shaw has most definitely done that in Against the Grain, which she launched during Coeliac Awareness Week. While there is so often a general vibe in the non-coeliac world of gluten being 'bad', and it is trendy not to eat glutenous foods, this book gave me a lot of insight into what it's actually like to live with this disease on a day-to-day basis. It does so in quite a visceral fashion, in the way that good fiction so often delivers us truths.

If you'd told me I'd enjoy reading a book about a coeliac witch who loves mountain biking, I'd have laughed

While this struggle is a daily challenge for Trinity, it’s certainly not the book’s main focus. Like every person (and witch), she has other things going on, and they are far more pressing than whether she can find a place that makes a decent cronut (spoiler alert – she does!).

After a casual fling turns into a stalker, forcing her to gather her belongings once again and hit the road for new territory, this witch and her shape-shifting demonic familiar, Saifa, make their way to the suburb of Karori in Wellington. Not only is Trinity taking all of her worldly belongings, but baggage in the form of several failed attempts at romance and a set of beliefs passed down from her now-deceased grandmother, intended to keep her safe.

It gave me a lot of insight into what it's actually like to live with coeliac disease

Trinity takes these rules incredibly seriously, even when it sometimes feels like it's doing her more harm than good and, ultimately, the beliefs she holds about her lot in life become some of her biggest challenges. The fear instilled by her family keeps her on the move and running away from her problems instead of working through them.

This backfires when, on entering Karori, her familiar finds he can no longer leave, which means neither can Trinity. As with so many witch stories, Trinity’s familiar is an important part of her life and her craft. The two have a symbiotic relationship in which he siphons and feeds off her unused magic, keeping her safe and himself satiated. Together they work like well-oiled gears and keep each other in balance.

Trinity and Saifa's whispered chanting twined together, hers breaking the silence of the apartment, and his breaking the silence of her mind.

Trinity is effectively imprisoned within the suburb, with her familiar, and to free themselves they will have to untangle the web of magic trapping them.

Against the Grain is firmly grounded in Aotearoa as a setting, from the detailed descriptions of Karori and Mākara Peak to the frequent mention of native plant and animal life, as well as the range of native animals and insects (both living and extinct) that Saifa turns into.

The filtered green light of the bush, the soft breeze, and rustling birdsong of the tūī and pīwakawaka made her forget her irritation within minutes.

It is always lovely to read rich, evocative descriptions of our home country, and I think this is something Harding-Shaw does beautifully.

The relationship between witch and familiar is the most important one in this book, at least in my mind. Saifa has been with Trinity longer than anyone else, and is the only entity that truly knows who she is; in some ways, he knows her better than she knows herself, and as a good friend, he's not afraid to call her on it.

“Aren't you bored of being a moth yet?"
Aren't you bored of mothballing your life yet?

Let's face it, only the best of friends can snap back at us like that – and we all need at least one of those friends. The banter between these two is incredibly entertaining, and I laughed out loud on several occasions.

The book has other potential relationships – the sexy baker who is also Trinity’s landlord and the wealthy, enigmatic mountain biker she literally runs into. Unfortunately, Trinity’s history makes it hard for her to trust these men, or herself. There is a real sense of a character trying to juggle her messy life, and temptations of both the baked goods and the manly kind, while keeping herself protected from the dangers she sees everywhere.

Ultimately, this is a book about finding your home

There is a lot of wish fulfilment going on for the author in this book – which might not be to everyone’s taste. I personally enjoy that, but it may seem too convenient for some that her familiar can detect gluten in food. Or that she finds a cute apartment right above a clever foodie who can cater to her whims, complete with quirky bistro filled with eclectic décor and geeky Easter eggs. These are the kinds of touches that delight me. I’d love to imagine a world where I could avoid my own particular health problems with the help of a kick-ass familiar. And wouldn’t we all like a personal chef to whip up delicious meals?

Ultimately, this is a book about finding your home (whatever that might look like for you), being forced to face your past trauma, and finding new ways to operate in the world, even when it's hard, while being wrapped up in the warmth and safety of friends who know you better than you know yourself.

If you like novellas or shorter books, and some light escapism where you know that things will ultimately turn out okay, then this is a delightful read.

Against the Grain is self-published by Melanie Harding-Shaw


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The Pantograph Punch publishes urgent and vital cultural commentary by the most exciting new voices in Aotearoa.

The Pantograph Punch publishes urgent and vital cultural commentary by the most exciting new voices in Aotearoa.

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