Just under half the human population of the Earth is unaware of one simple fact: that all women are witches. That is the premise of this classic short novel of paranoia by Fritz Leiber. It suggests that behind every successful man is a woman with a firm grasp of witchcraft, one who has to weave a complex web of social magic to advance her husband's position.
At its heart this is a society novel, where the exclusive society is the one represented by the upper hierarchy in a University. Norman Saylor is a sociology lecturer with a checkered career, whom despite that has found himself a comfortable position at the Hempnell college. All is going well, until one day he discovers his wife's secret, an in depth knowledge of witchcraft. The rational man that he is, he orders her to put aside all her magical arts and return to normality.
Things appear fine at first, and she is happy to finally to be freed from this ancient tyranny, yet with the removal of all her charms Norman's life quickly begins to change. Things begin to go badly wrong, the kind of things that damage reputations and cause a successful society figure to find themselves quickly blacklisted. The fact that a triumvirate of ambitious wives see his position as a precarious one, only succeeds in speeding his downfall. He becomes haunted by the supernatural, chased by shadows, and eventually drawn into a world he barely understands.
Conjure Wife is an enjoyable novel of manners that is as blatantly dated as head scarves and tie died flares, yet despite that has aged surprisingly well. It gives a wonderful insight into the closed, backstabbing world of a traditional college fighting against a more radical member of the faculty. For the most part the witchcraft elements of the story are secondary to the interplay between the characters vying for position. It is only toward the latter part of the novel that the supernatural elements really come to the fore, though mostly as psychological weapons in the battle for societal supremacy that ensues.