Sunday, 6 November 2016

The Witchfinders Sister - Beth Underdown



My Review

I love a good meaty literary historical novel with a strong female protagonist and the Witchfinders sister ticks every box for me. It is a stunning and highly accomplished literary debut, a most wonderful atmospheric read which will stay with me long after I close the pages.

We meet Alice Hopkins in 1645 when she is returning home to stay with her younger brother, after she has been suddenly and tragically widowed. Relationships with her brother have been somewhat strained since she left home to marry for love, beneath the status expected of her, a marriage to the adopted son of a former servant of her family.

The book made me really think about how limited the choices were for women several centuries ago when without a man to protect them they would be reviled and penniless. Thank goodness I was born in the present day, for all my passion for history and reading about the past, time travel through books like this is the closest I want to be to ever being in as helpless a situation as Alice finds herself.

Alice is desperate to avoid becoming completely homeless, she is carrying her late husbands child, a final reminder of the love they shared, but it’s difficult for her to even tell her sibling as she finds her shy and diffident younger brother Matthew greatly changed, both in the company he keeps and the secretiveness of his business and his manner and attitude towards her (and other women). She must do all she can to placate him and smooth things over between them just to keep a roof over her head.

Like when they were both children, he still keeps a journal but now he doesn’t record childish hopes and dreams and he no longer wants a big sister to protect the scarred and fearful child he once was. The man he has become is writing things about the neighbourhood women, recording their details and blaming them for ills which have befallen menfolk. The quiet clergyman is no more and a vengeful and obsessive Matthew expects his dutiful sister to support him in his quest.

Alice befriends Grace, a maid in the household and tries to keep her head down whilst Matthew pursues his ever widening witch hunt from which no woman seems to be immune. Her unease turns to dismay when she finds even her own mother in law is on Matthews radar.

Alice is a fabulous character, with whom I had huge empathy, yet at times I almost began to dislike her, until I made myself wear her shoes, think like her and realise, that some of her choices, although difficult to understand weren’t even options, much of the time she was stuck between the devil and the deep blue sea.

This is a novel with its feet firmly embedded in factual events. The story of the notorious witchfinder general is haunting and harrowing and completely unputdownable. 

The viewpoint of watching this horror unfold from the point of view of a helpless bystander, herself at risk from the man who is grown from her beloved little brother is jaw dropping.

My heart ached for Alice and the dilemma she finds herself in and there is a bone juddering, brilliant line right at the end of the book that made my blood run ice cold!

Don't let the subject matter fool you into thinking this is a ya fantasy type book about witches, its much more authentic and compelling than this and is a superb book about the persecution of women and their place (or lack of it) in 17th century Britain and a man who became corrupt and fanatical.



This book isn't due out until March 2017 and I think it's going to be one to watch and wait with bated breath for. Pencil it in your diary for next year.

The Blurb:

'Do you believe in the devil? Not so long ago I too would have scoffed. Now - now I am not so sure.'

1645. Alice Hopkins returns in disgrace, husbandless and pregnant, to her brother Matthew's house in the small Essex town of Manningtree.

When she left, Matthew was an awkward boy, bullied for the scars that disfigure his face. But the brother Alice has come back to is like a different person. Now Matthew has powerful friends, and mysterious business that keeps him out late into the night. Then the rumours begin: whispers of witchcraft, and of a great book, in which Matthew is gathering women's names.

Just how far will Matthew's obsession drive him? And what choice will Alice make, when she finds herself at the very heart of his plan?

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