Before Salem, there was Manningtree. . . .
"This summer, my brother Matthew set himself to killing women, but without ever once breaking the law."
The book opens by establishing we are in 1645, the forth year of the Civil War, which prepares us for a setting of unease and death. And then we read the chilling words:
"Before this, women have seldom been hanged for witchcraft- one or two, every five years or ten. But now the country is falling apart at the seams. Now, all England is looking the other way: so there is nothing to stop Matthew Hopkins stepping forward. Starting to make a list of names."
There is something about topic of witchcraft which is massively appealing to me! I think it is fascinating. Witches are the stuff of great fairy tales, myths, legends and Shakespeare's plays. And then they are the stuff of history - they are the women hounded by vengeful husbands, nervous Kings and communities looking for a scapegoat. It's fascinating to read about the trials against these women, the brutality and injustice that was done to them, the lack of understanding towards mental illness, emotional behaviour and psychology - and the cruelty of men who abused people's fear of witchcraft to disguise their own flaws.
What better setting for a novel? What better moment in history for Underdown place her hugely compelling, exciting and unputdownable read?
I was immediately engaged with the story.
Despite it being set in 1645 and the author ensuring that the prose remains faithful to this era, Underdown's skill at evoking the historical context with such an accomplished subtlety means that this novel reads as well as any contemporary thriller. The detail to setting, clothes and dialogue show a huge amount of understand and research of the era but Underdown does not flaunt her extensive knowledge, merely uses it to enhance the atmosphere and characterisation. The writing is fast paced; the plot moves swiftly along with a perfect balance between suspense, tension, dramatic plot events and detailed characterisation.
Alice is a very engaging protagonist and it is easy to establish a relationship with her. She has suffered her own heartache and traumas, she has a sad history and has been away from her family for some time. When she returns home to her brother Matthew it is with "heavy heart". She has been gone 5 years and she knows he has changed.
When he was a baby, Matthew was burned in a kitchen fire which has left him with scars that run up his arm, neck, chin and across the left side of his face. He also has an "unsteady" heartbeat and dreams that make him shout out. He has never fitted in that well. Matthew and Alice are their father's "spare" children. Their father already had three older heirs so is left with Matthew and his "strangeness", and Alice, a girl. Therefore Alice and Matthew were very close as children but as she realises:
Returning home she finds Matthew changed; he is wealthy, his fortunes have changed and he is respected, holding much influence within the community. But there is more than that. Something darker and more threatening. Alice soon realises that Matthew has become a hunter of suspected witches. As the story continues, Alice tries to stop her brother even if it jeopardises her own safety. As she continues to seek out what it is that fuels her brother's hatred, she finds herself delving further into the family's past and dredging up dark secrets..... Does she have the strength to put her own liberty at risk in order to defeat the evil and prevent any more innocent women from facing the gallows?
This is a haunting novel. It's inspiration from real-life events makes it even more so. Matthew's character is chilling, unnerving and deeply troubling. His behaviour is so callous and reveals such a disturbed and troubled mind that he becomes quite frightening and oppressive. Alice is an equally strong character who I felt very drawn to and very involved with. She has her own demons to confront, her own past to atone and her own heartache to nurse and as events culminate she begins to realise only too late how complicated and dangerous her situation is.
The story line is easy to follow. Although there are layers and revelations, complications and twists, the plot is gripping and taut. I read this book quickly but there are some passages that are shocking. The scenes describing the treatment of women suspected of witchcraft are at times harrowing -more so because they are historically authentic and it is always hard for any reader to acknowledge people's mistreatment of others.
Alice's insights and observations are thought provoking and Underdown definitely explores attitudes towards madness, depression and mental illness at the time. I think perhaps Alice's ideas and comments would without doubt make her a woman ahead of her time but as a reader I grabbed on to them and held fast as I willed her to be able to stop Matthew and curtail his mission to send these innocent women to the gallows.
"For a woman is brought up to believe that children are her life's work - to make them and feed them and kiss their hurts. But what happens if you cannot have children? If you have too many? If you have them, and they cannot protect you? If you have them, and they die? If you weep for their loss too much, or not enough - that is when folk begin to wonder if it is your fault, your misfortune. They begin to wonder how you can have offended God, and their wonderings turn to ripe for a man like my brother to exploit."
Underdown's writing is subtle. There are some statements and comments that actually resonate beyond the page and are relevant for today's society. There are some poignant and profound statements that reflect insight into her exploration of madness, grief, abandonment and revenge.
I found myself thinking of how as a child I had always wanted to read the books that Father said were too hard for me, not realising yet that understanding a book is not the same as being able to spell out all the words.
This was an excellent read. It was literally spell binding. Underdown is a talented writer who managed to charm me with her captivating prose as well as grip me with a great story and strong characters. The final lines were outstanding.
The Witchfinder's Sister was published by Penguin on 2nd March 2017.
Follow Beth on Twitter or check out her website:
Beth Underdown was born in Rochdale in 1987. She studied at the University of York and then the University of Manchester, where she is now a Lecturer in Creative Writing.
The Witchfinder’s Sister is her first novel, and is out with Viking in the UK and Ballantine in the US in Spring 2017. The book is based on the life of the 1640s witch finder Matthew Hopkins, whom she first came across while reading a book about seventeenth-century midwifery. As you do.
And don't just take my word for how good this book is - just look at these quotes!
"Vivid and terrifying."--Paula Hawkins, #1 New York Timesbestselling author of The Girl on the Train
"Beth Underdown conjures a mesmerizing tale. The Witchfinder's Sister will draw you into the terrifying world of England's witch hunts. Read it late into the night, but don't expect to sleep afterward!"--Paula Brackston, New York Times bestselling author of The Witch's Daughter
"Gripping . . . The Witchfinder's Sister gives a long-forgotten historical tragedy a fresh, feminist spin. Beth Underdown, by providing us with this intelligent, sympathetic protagonist, allows us to see inside the hearts of both monster and victims while never letting us forget that throughout history women's stories have too often been told by men."--Melanie Benjamin, New York Times bestselling author of The Swans of Fifth Avenue
"A richly told and utterly compelling tale, with shades of Hilary Mantel."--Kate Hamer, author of The Girl in the Red Coat
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