Wakenhyrst by Michelle Paver

Medieval demons and Edwardian doom…

😀 😀 😀 😀

Young Maud Stearne is a lonely child, growing up in an old house in the midst of the Suffolk fens in the early 20th century. Her strict and domineering father doesn’t have much love or time for any of his children, especially his daughter, and her mother is almost permanently pregnant, though most of those pregnancies don’t come to term. Edmund Stearne, her father, is searching for a book rumoured to have been written by a medieval mystic, the Book of Alice Pyett. But during the renovation of the local church, Edmund finds a medieval painting of the Last Judgement – the Wenhaston Doom – whitewashed over during the Reformation; and he becomes obsessed with the demons portrayed on it.

The book starts in the ‘60s, when an elderly Maud is being pestered by a journalist to tell the story of the murder her father committed when she was young. One day he ran out of the house carrying a sharpened ice-pick and killed the first person he saw, and then went mad. No-one except Maud has ever known why he did it, and she has never spoken about it. Edmund spent many years in an asylum, painting demons, and has now died. Maud has lived an isolated existence in her childhood home since the tragedy and still doesn’t want to talk about it. But when for financial reasons she finally decides to open up, she chooses another recipient for the story – a young academic called Robin Hunter who has been researching Edmund’s paintings. The story Maud tells is one of Gothic horror, with at its heart the question – was Edmund driven mad by supernatural evil or are the evil things that happened a result of his existing madness?

I didn’t find this book nearly as scary as Paver’s earlier ventures into the supernatural – Dark Matter, the best modern horror story I’ve read, and Thin Air. However, it still has plenty to recommend it. It’s a slow burn in the beginning as we learn about Maud’s restricted life and her vague misunderstandings about what she calls her mother’s “groanings” – the miscarriages and stillbirths that happen all too often. But once Maud becomes a little older – her midteens – her father begins to involve her in his work, not out of affection but to save himself the annoyance of having a secretary in the house. As she types up his research notes, she also begins to understand what kind of man he is – cold, bullying, selfish, misogynistic. And increasingly obsessed by the feeling that he is in danger from the forces of evil.

The story is told as a third person narrative for the most part, but includes many extracts from Edmund’s journal and some from the Book of Alice Pyett. Gradually we learn how his researches are feeding Edmund’s obsession and, along with Maud, we become aware that there is a mystery in Edmund’s past.

The characterisation of both Maud and her father is excellent. Neither is likeable, though one’s sympathies are all for Maud. As she becomes aware that her mother’s frequent pregnancies are a result of her father’s refusal to practice any form of self-restraint, her desire to win his affection changes into a form of hatred. Isolated and unloved, she must work her own way through the difficult years of adolescence, and the position of women is such that she has no hope of escaping her father’s control. She is strong, but is she strong enough to face the atmosphere of dread that is slowly descending over the household?

Michelle Paver

Strip the horror element out completely, and it’s still a deeply disturbing picture of life under a tyrannical father at a time when children had no independent rights, and even adult women were entirely under the control of their husbands. Alice Pyett’s story is based on the famous medieval Book of Margery Kempe (which I haven’t read) and is of another woman whose life was blighted by excessive childbirth. Whatever demons are after Edmund – supernatural or self-inflicted – I felt he deserved all he got. But like most tyrants, even as he suffered, he made sure those around him suffered too.

After the relatively slow start, I found myself totally absorbed in the second half. It’s very well written and full of interesting stuff about medieval beliefs and superstitions along with lots of Suffolk folklore. I didn’t buy into the supernatural aspect, but it didn’t matter – the ambiguity means that it works just as well, perhaps even better, as a fully human story of madness and cruelty. People can be far more frightening than demons…

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Head of Zeus.

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TBR Thursday 193…

Episode 193

Well, I’ve had a little influx of books this week, so I must be getting through them too, since the overall increase is just 1 to 231. Surprises me, since I feel as if I’ve done nothing except gaze at the farce put on by our revered and well-paid politicians for weeks now.

Order! Order! Here’s what’s next on the order paper…

Crime

Courtesy of 4th Estate at HarperCollins. This one popped unexpectedly through my letter-box a couple of weeks ago. I always enjoy getting the occasional book sent to me that I haven’t specifically chosen because it kicks me out of my rut. Sometimes they turn out to be great reads – fingers crossed for this one!

The Blurb says: A gripping literary thriller and the first of a new crime series, from the bestselling author of Before We Met.

Detective Inspector Robin Lyons is going home. Dismissed for misconduct from the Met’s Homicide Command after refusing to follow orders, unable to pay her bills (or hold down a relationship), she has no choice but to take her teenage daughter Lennie and move back in with her parents in the city she thought she’d escaped forever at 18. In Birmingham, sharing a bunkbed with Lennie and navigating the stormy relationship with her mother, Robin works as a benefit-fraud investigator – to the delight of those wanting to see her cut down to size.

Only Corinna, her best friend of 20 years, seems happy to have Robin back. But when Corinna’s family is engulfed by violence and her missing husband becomes a murder suspect, Robin can’t bear to stand idly by as the police investigate. Can she trust them to find the truth of what happened? And why does it bother her so much that the officer in charge is her ex-boyfriend – the love of her teenage life? As Robin launches her own unofficial investigation and realises there may be a link to the disappearance of a young woman, she starts to wonder how well we can really know the people we love – and how far any of us will go to protect our own.

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Scottish Classic

Courtesy of Oxford World’s Classics. I know very little about this one except that it always shows up on lists of Scottish classics, and that I mercilessy mocked my brother for years for reading obscure Scottish books like this and he’s now getting his own back. But I’ve been pleasantly surprised by how much I’ve enjoyed the Scottish section of my Classics Club list, so my hopes are high… well, fairly high… though I’ve just read the blurb… maybe I should have done that before I put it on my list… 

The Blurb says: Smollett’s savage, boisterously funny lambasting of eighteenth-century British society charts the unfortunate journey of the gout-ridden and irascible squire Matthew Bramble across Britain, who finds himself everywhere surrounded by decadents, pimps, con-men, raucousness and degeneracy – until the arrival of the trusty manservant Humphry Clinker promises to improve his fortunes.

Populated with unforgettable grotesques and written with a relish for earthy humour and wordplay, and a ferocious pessimism, Humphry Clinker is Smollett’s masterpiece.

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Crime

Courtesy of HarperCollins. Hurrah! A new one in the wonderful Maeve Kerrigan series! It’s been a long wait for this, so hopes are astronomically high…

The Blurb says: Leo Stone is a killer. A year ago, he was convicted of murdering two women and sentenced to life without parole. But now, a juror from his trial has revealed the jury was prejudiced, and a retrial is called.

Detectives Maeve Kerrigan and Josh Derwent are tasked with re-examining the evidence. Before long, they uncover links between Stone and a possible third victim.

But with Stone behind bars, a fourth woman disappears in similar circumstances. Is there a copycat killer out there, or have they been wrong about Stone from the start? And will Maeve discover the truth before another innocent victim is killed?

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Gothic Horror

Courtesy of Head of Zeus via NetGalley. I loved Paver’s Dark Matter, finding it up there with the very best of classic horror, and was pleased to see my opinion reinforced when it was one of the few modern books mentioned by the illustrious horror expert, Darryl Jones, in his history of the genre, Sleeping With The Lights On. So… no pressure for this one, then, Ms Paver… 😉

The Blurb says: In Edwardian Suffolk, a manor house stands alone in a lost corner of the Fens: a glinting wilderness of water whose whispering reeds guard ancient secrets. Maud is a lonely child growing up without a mother, ruled by her repressive father. When he finds a painted medieval devil in a graveyard, unhallowed forces are awakened.

Maud’s battle has begun. She must survive a world haunted by witchcraft, the age-old legends of her beloved fen – and the even more nightmarish demons of her father’s past.

Spanning five centuries, Wakenhyrst is a darkly gothic thriller about murderous obsession and one girl’s longing to fly free.

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NB All blurbs and covers taken from Goodreads.

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So…what do you think? Do any of these tempt you?