The Manningtree Witches by AK Blakemore

The evil that men do…

😀 😀 😀 😀

The Manningtree WitchesIt is 1643, the time of the English Civil War. In the town of Manningtree in Essex, men are scarce as the young and fit are off fighting. Rebecca West and her widowed mother are among the women who live on the margins of society, looked down on by the respectable matrons of the town for the crimes of being poor and husbandless. But when Matthew Hopkins arrives in town bringing his Puritanical ideas regarding witches, suddenly these women are seen as a threat – the cause of any ill which may befall one of the town’s worthy residents. And when Matthew Hopkins decides to style himself Witchfinder, the women find themselves in danger…

This is a re-imagining of the true story of the Essex witch trials of 1644-7, led by Hopkins and resulting in the deaths of many women, several of them from Manningtree and Mistley where the book is set. Hopkins died young and very little is known of him other than his witchfinding, and the women are mostly known only through the records of the trials, so Blakemore has created her story from little more than bare bones. In the afterword, she suggests that her aim was to give a voice to these voiceless women, and to tell the story of the persecuted rather than the persecutor. I’d say she succeeds very well.

Rebecca tells us the story in her own voice, and it is certainly not the voice of a shrinking victim. She may be powerless but she has strong opinions and a rebellious nature, and a sense of humour that helps her through the darkest times. She recognises the unfairness in society between rich and poor, man and woman, but there’s nothing she can do to change that so her aim is to get through life as best she can regardless. She has the benefit of physical attractiveness, but her low social status means that men are likely to look to her for sex rather than marriage. She doesn’t think of her mother and her friends as witches, but she knows they have a lot of superstitions, use folklore remedies in treating illnesses, and are not beyond cursing their irreproachable neighbours when angered.

England has been a religious mess since Henry VIII, and the “true faith” has changed so many times it feels understandable that Rebecca and her kind have developed a kind of cynicism over the whole subject. Hopkins, however, is a righteous man, sure of his faith, the most important line in his personal Bible being “Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live”. Or is it that he’s simply a straightforward religious misogynist, interpreting his sexual feelings towards women through the prism of his Biblical belief that all women are a) sinful and b) cursed? Blakemore gives the reader room to believe either version of him, or both.

The story itself is well told, with an excellent mix of light and dark – the light provided by Rebecca’s resilience and humour, and the dark by the events in which she finds herself caught up. I felt that perhaps the winding-up section at the end went on a little too long, somewhat reducing the impact of the trial and its aftermath, but otherwise I felt the pacing was good, holding my interest throughout.

AK Blakemore
AK Blakemore

There is, however, one major problem with the book which prevents me giving it the full five stars, and that, I’m afraid, is in the writing. Blakemore clearly has a lot of talent, but my one piece of advice to her would be to throw out the thesaurus and buy a good dictionary. It is much better to use a plain word correctly than a fancy word wrongly: for example, “rubbing one hand on a sordid apron” – yes, in some contexts sordid and dirty can be synonyms, but not this one. Then there are the shrieking anachronisms – “for shits and giggles”, “coin-operated”, “smack me upside the head”, etc. And the plain errors – who instead of whom, and so on. And sometimes the descriptive passages run away with her completely – “The sunbeams bouncing in through the parlour window feel like hot spindles to his eyes, and slice right through the soft, compromised meat of his head” or “While marching orders and tactical directives deliquesce on the brumal winds, the pyrotechnics of imminent apocalypse shimmer just as rosily on the ice-bound horizon as they ever did.” I hasten to add it’s not all like this by any means – for the most part her writing is very good, but she is clearly trying too hard to be “creative”, and there’s enough of it that it was a constant irritation to me, and took away from my ability to get lost in the story. It is ultimately the author’s responsibility to get the writing right, but yet again I have to ask, what did the editor do to earn his/her fee with this one?

The fact that I still enjoyed it despite these problems is an indication of the strengths of the story, the characterisation and Blakemore’s underlying writing talent. Hopefully as she gains experience she will learn to rely on these things and not stretch too far in a bid for an original turn of phrase. I look forward to reading more from her in the future.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Granta Publications.

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55 thoughts on “The Manningtree Witches by AK Blakemore

  1. I have this TBR – I hadn’t realised that it’s about the same real life witchfinder, Matthew Hopkins, as another historical novel I read a few years ago, The Witchfinder’s Sister by Beth Underdown.

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    • I didn’t know Hopkins was a real person till I read the author’s afterword at the end, but since then I keep coming across his name popping up in other books! I think you’ll enjoy this one when you get to it.

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  2. Yes, yes, yes, FictionFan! Use a plain, well-chosen word rather than a complex one! I’ve read so many stories where the author didn’t do that, and they are hard work to enjoy. That aside, though, it sounds like a fascinating story, and an imaginative way to explore that history. Rebeca sounds like a strong character, too, and a good choice for narrator. I really like it when historical events/movements/etc. are told from individuals’ points of view like that.

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    • I’m all for people having a wide vocabulary but if obscure or wrongly-used words start impinging on my conscious mind it throws me right out of the fictional world. And in this case the book is narrated by a young, largely uneducated, poor 17th century girl – would she really talk about things deliquescing?? But it’s quite clear Blakemore has talent and the story was very well presented, so I’m sure her style will settle with experience.

      Liked by 1 person

    • Yes, it’s perfectly possible to have a wide vocabulary without deliberately replacing common words with obscure ones simply for effect. But she clearly does have talent, and I’m sure her style will settle down with experience…

      Liked by 1 person

    • Yes, if you must use fancy words it’s vital that you use them correctly – I felt she was looking words up in a thesaurus and not realising that words can be similar but not the same, if that makes sense. And as a lazy reader I don’t mind having to look up a dictionary occasionally, but not too often!

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      • I know what you mean–this is something I face on a regular basis with my students (I don’t teach English by the way), but many of them tend to pick words that sound fancy but which either mean something else or are meant for a different context (like using words with a negative connotation in a positive context).

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  3. I’m with you on the language. I don’t mind some anachronisms. But when they don’t make sense for the time period, I am annoyed. Also dressed up statements pull me out of the story if they are just there to point to the author–“look how well she writes”–and not to help me see the scene.

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    • I feel especially if you use a first-person narrator you have to try to make it sound like something that character might actually say. I don’t mean put it into Ye Olde English, but no way would a poor, largely uneducated 17th century girl use this kind of high-flown language!

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  4. It was all going so well till you mentioned the over blown language: good grief. Bad or sloppy editing of any kind is a pet hate of mine, especially with debut authors, who perhaps still need a degree of guidance. It sounds like a good story though despite that major issue.

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    • Yes, I think editors have a special responsibility to guide younger authors too, but more and more they seem to leave the poor souls to get the criticism from brutal reviews. However Blakemore definitely has talent, so I’m sure her style will settle down once she has a little more experience. If she could keep someone as picky as me onside despite these irritations, she must be doing something right!

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  5. I can forgive some creative choice of adjectives but there comes a point where it becomes ridiculous. Those modern phrases and the grammatical errors are just plain wrong and I’m surprised an editor allowed them through. I had this on my radar but I don’t think I could be as forgiving as you, FF. Clearly an excellent story though!

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    • I can put up with creative stuff to some extent too, if it’s appropriate to the character, but this is supposedly the voice of a poor, largely uneducated, 17th century girl – no way would she use this kind of high-flown language! As for the modern phrases, they just throw me straight out of the story. But she clearly has talent, as is proven by the fact that she managed to keep even someone as picky and judgemental as me turning pages… 😀

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  6. The storyline on this one sounds great. I cringe to think about how many women were shunned (or killed!) over the centuries, just for their herbal knowledge.

    Now that you’ve pointed out some of the grammar and writing problems, they might bother me. It would just depend on how much I was enjoying the story. I don’t always feel the need for the simplest word, but the one used needs to sound natural, not forced.

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    • It’s horrifying to think of all the witch trials – in Scotland they went on right up to the early 18th century. And I did think Blakemore reimagined the story well, despite the irritation of some of the language. Yes, I don’t mind writers using a wide vocabulary either, but it has to be appropriate. This narrator is supposed to be a young, poor, largely uneducated 17th century girl – she simply wouldn’t have known half these words! But I still enjoyed it overall, so clearly Blakemore was doing something right… 😀

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    • Haha, I must have read it twenty times now, and I’m still not sure what she was trying to convey! 😉 It was a shame because mostly the writing is very good, but this kind of thing just throws me right out of the story.

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  7. I considered requesting this when I saw it on NetGalley, but I have read a few other historical novels about witch trials over the last few years and thought it sounded too similar. I think I made the right decision as I hate anachronistic language like that, but I’m glad you managed to enjoy it anyway!

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    • Yes, it’s well-travelled territory, but despite the language issues I had with it, overall I thought she did a very good job, especially with the characterisation. It’ll be interesting to see what subject she chooses next…

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    • Yes, indeed – if she managed to keep someone as picky and judgemental as me turning the pages, she must have been doing something right! I do think she has a lot of talent and her style will settle down with experience – I’ll be interested to see what she does next… 😀

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  8. By any chance, is this a debut novel? If so, I wonder why the editor didn’t pay stricter attention to those things you found objectionable — the anachronisms, flowery descriptions, grammar errors, and so forth would, I’m sure, drive me to distraction. I’m glad you found it enjoyable nevertheless!

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    • It is a debut novel, but she has published other stuff before – poetry, mainly, I think. So I felt her editor should have been much tougher, pointing out that novels need a different style, with words serving the story rather than throwing the reader out of it. She clearly has talent though and her style will settle with a little more experience. I’ll be interested to see what she does next.

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  9. This does sound interesting, although I agree with the general consensus about the language (those excerpts you’ve quoted are somewhat ridiculous). I have not actually read any novels about the witch-trials in the UK, only the US – I don’t think I’ll be adding this to my wishlist but I might keep an eye out for it at the library.

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    • I haven’t read much about the witch-trials either and actually wasn’t aware the Matthew Hopkins and the women were real people till I read the author’s afterword. Since then I’ve kept seeing Matthew Hopkins’ name pop up in connection with other books – serendipity in action! The over-the-top descriptions don’t happen all the time or I’d have found it unreadable, but there were enough of them to annoy me. But it’s still well done, overall – if you do read it sometime, I hope that like me you can enjoy it despite the flaws!

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  10. The story sounds fascinating. I think I’d like to read something from the point of view of the true believer, one who genuinely thinks certain people are dangerous witches. I agree with all of the other comments regarding the language and that the editor should be held accountable (I’m saying this as someone who doesn’t know the difference between who and whom, but I do know that the editor is paid to know).

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yes, I think especially with younger, less experienced authors the editor really should take a tough line – otherwise what are they for? I tried to think if I’d come across one where the main character believed other people were witches, but failed. Maybe because we don’t believe in witches now, authors don’t show that angle? But I agree it would be interesting…

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  11. This is an interesting review. I’m not sure what to think about the book. I like the idea and the story, but I’m less impressed by the fact that an educated woman could see how unjust the society was in an age of religious piety when people believed that it was ordained for some to be masters and the others servants. The language would bother me too… coin-operated?!

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    • Apart from her use of anachronistic language, I felt on the whole that Rebecca wasn’t too full of modern ideas most of the time. She’s feisty, but I suppose some women were, and she occasionally sounds far more educated than she could have been, but I liked how the author suggested that her cynicism about religion and society grew out of the years of disruption since the Reformation. It is interesting, despite some flaws…

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      • I read about the reformation and how some people started to be sceptical about organized religion by the end of the 16th century, although they were not exactly agnostic or atheists, just disappointed with what was happening. Also, seeing that their lives were the same, with same problems and burdens, regardless if they had paintings in church and a nicely decorated rood or not, must have had an impact too. So her views are realistic.

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        • CJ Sansom’s Shardlake is a very good fictional take on that – don’t know if you’ve read them? Shardlake himself starts out as a keen Reformer, but as the series goes on we see him gradually lose his belief in the way the Church is going and eventually beginning to have doubts about faith at all. It’s very well done.

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            • I read Winter in Madrid many years ago and remember being a bit disappointed, but I put that down to my lack of knowledge of the SCW. It’s on my challenge list for a re-read now I’m an “expert”… 😉

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  12. The marching orders sentence is awful, I don’t really even understand it but that you gave it 4 stars despite this means it must be good. Wiping her hands on a sordid apron is very funny!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Some of the words she used were so out of context that I was sure she’d picked them up from a thesaurus without really knowing what they meant! But she has a lot of talent and hopefully next time she’ll get an editor who’ll take a tougher line when she goes over the top… 😀

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  13. Oh boy, some of those quotes you included were very…complicated. Way too wordsy, it does make me wonder where the editor was for that-that’s quite literally their job to edit that stuff out LOL

    Liked by 1 person

    • Definitely worth reading – she has real talent, and I’m sure she’ll learn with experience when to hold back with the over the top descriptions! And I did like Rebecca’s voice even despite the occasional anachronisms.

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  14. This does sound really interesting, but I’m afraid the writing would kill it for me. Though an editor can Strongly Suggest making changes, it’s the author who makes the final call. Hopefully if Blakemore sees enough feedback about the problems she’ll try to avoid them in her next book.

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    • I did manage to enjoy it despite the language, but it’s the kind of thing that can throw me right out of a story. Ha, yes, maybe I shouldn’t blame the editor, but I do feel editors in general don’t seem to take a string enough line with authors these days, or maybe it’s that publishers should make it clear to authors they need to listen to the editor if they want to be published! I often hope that young authors read reviews – avoiding the nasty ones, if possible – to see what experienced readers are critical of.

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      • Yes, you may be right. One of my pet peeves is when well-known writers decide they don’t need to listen to editors any more (or maybe the editors are afraid of being honest) and their books get out of control.

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        • Totally agree. I think that’s what’s happened to JK Rowling – her books are ridiculously overlong and over-padded now, but I guess she can get away with anything as far as nay control from editors or publishers is concerned.

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