This week’s reads…part 1

First week of blogging about about books and it’s been eventful. I never expected to meet so many other great bloggers and book enthusiasts. It has opened up my reading world even more. Which is great… but OH MY GOODNESS the TBR pile is starting to totter!

Too many books not enough time, as usual!

So…moving on, this week’s book reviews are below. Quite a mix in terms of genre and certainly time period. Make of them what you will!!

The Familiars – Stacey Halls

A historical drama dealing with The Pendle witch trials, this was a read for one of my ‘real life’ book groups. It was chosen as it is set very, very locally to us. I am not sure if I am just a perpetual child, easily pleased or both, but I still get that strange thrill when I see the name of a place I know really well in print. So from that respect at least The Familiars was a winner!

The story centres on Fleetwood Shutteworth, the 17 year old mistress of Gawthorpe Hall. Her dilemma is that age old problem of being required to provide an heir for her husband. When the novel begins Fleetwood is pregnant for the fourth time and has just discovered she is unlikely to survive another pregnancy. Cue the arrival of Alice, a local wise woman and midwife. Fleetwood and Alice develop a bond, and when Alice becomes embroiled within the Pendle witch trials, Fleetwood is desperate to save her in order to preserve her own life and that of her unborn child.

By far the most interesting element of this book lies in how it presents the theme of power,predominantly, but not exclusively women’s power. The whole book is a power play. Different characters hold and exploit different types of power at different times.

As has been so familiar with the lot of women throughout history, Fleetwood’s power lies in her potential ability to bring a pregnancy to term and ultimately produce an heir. Alice’s power is in her knowledge and skill passed down from generation to generation. Other women, including the child Jennet, implicate their neighbours through the power of gossip.

The witch hunts of the 17th Century did more than just pursue individual women. Crucially they stripped whole groups of women, particularly poor women, of what little power they held. The extension of the remit of the witch hunters to include the use of herbs and charms, local ‘wise women’, who had served their communities for generations as nurses, counsellors and midwives, were suddenly in danger.

The whole novel can be interpreted as a struggle for power; Fleetwood fighting to gain power over her husband, the authorities and even her own body; local officials are fighting for the power that comes with the King’s favour; Protestants fighting to maintain and deepen their power over the forbidden Catholic religion.

This book has a lot to say. It is readable, moves quickly and is a promising debut.

However, there are issues. None of them undermine the message and integrity of the novel but they do, at times come pretty close.

There is a lack of subtly within the writing. For example the narrator talks of past and unwanted companions, and, as if by magic, another companion appears. Symbols of powers such as Richard’s falcon used to show that he can control such a independent creature, serves as a warning to Fleetwood. And yet this symbolism is sometimes not subtle. Throughout there is the feeling that motifs are heavily signposted rather than left for the reader to discover.

Something else that didn’t sit comfortably was the characterisation of Fleetwood. Whilst I am always willing to embrace an independent woman, I remain unconvinced that her portrayal was historically accurate. Would a young wife, with a difficult childbearing history, now pregnant with a longed for heir, be allowed to ride around the countryside, unchaperoned at this point in history? Particularly when she was in danger of jeopardising the reputation of her husband?

Over all this was a good book, a solid debut which I think will be appreciated by those who enjoyed ‘The Silent Companions’ by Laura Purcell and ‘The Wicked Cometh’ by Laura Carlin. Worth a look would also be ‘The Good People’ by Hannah Kent.

It’s has certainly inspired me to find out more about The Pendle Witches. I have already ordered Jeanette Winterson’s ‘ The Daylight Gate’ and may well be heading back to ‘The Crucible’ by Arthur Miller, the staple of my Sixth Form years.

Books mentioned in this blog…

The Wicked Cometh – Laura Carlin

The Familiars – Stacey Halls

The Good People – Hannah Kent

The Silent Companions – Laura Purcell

The Crucible – Arthur Miller

The Daylight Gate – Jeanette Winterson

Next up …

’Graceland’ by Bethan Roberts