“Something has been let loose…”
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.
If you’ve been following this blog for a while, you’ll probably get a sense that I love me a good historical novel. I also love ghost stories, folklore, and a good dose of the gothic. Michelle Paver’s latest novel, Wakenhyrst, ticks all of these boxes and, needless to say, I adored it.
With a narrative that spans over five centuries, taking in 14th-century superstitions, a chilling Edwardian crime, and a 1960’s-set reckoning, it would be easy for Wakenhyrst to become a sprawl of a novel. But the narrative is kept tight by keeping the central character, Maud, at its heart.
Curious and intelligent, Maud is constrained by her life at Wake’s End, and by the many rules that her father – and society – place on what a young lady should be and do. When we first meet Maud, she is an anxious child. Growing up without a mother, she is both entranced and repulsed by her cold yet brilliant father, a historian whose obsession with a 14th-century mystic called Alice Pyatt will soon prove dangerous for them all.
The narrative is alive with folklore and superstition. Salt is sprinkled in doorways, a wise woman sells love potions to young women, the New Year is let in the front door as the old one is whisked out the back. You really get a sense of the community, the time and the place. Wakes End seems to live and breathe on the page, and I could picture the small community of Wakenhyrst in my mind’s eye as I read.
And, at the centre of it all, is the fen. Drawn to the fen, Maud is entranced by its ever-shifting nature. She loves the starlings that circle overhead, the creatures that make it their home, and the sound of the wind through the reeds.
Her father, in contrast, is terrified by it. All windows facing the fen are shuttered, and he forbids the household from entering. But what terrible secret lies at the heart of the fen? And what does it have to do with Edmund Sterne’s research into Alice Pyatt? Or the uncovering of a long-lost Doom in the local church?
To say any more would be to spoil the twists and turns of this gorgeously intricate novel. But, as the various threads weave together, the fen is always at their heart. This is a novel about permanence. About love and lies and loss. About angels and demons and old, old tales. And about the things that we must face in order for us to be free.
Beautifully told, this is the perfect novel for curling up with by the fireside on a cold winter’s night. Maud is an engaging, intelligent narrator and her narrative, contrasted with that of her father’s, makes for compelling reading that will have you staying up long into the night.
Wonderfully atmospheric, Wakenhyrst is modern gothic at its best and deserves a place on the TBR of anyone who already enjoys the tales of Neil Gaiman, Laura Purcell, and Sarah Perry.
My thanks go to the publisher for providing an e-copy of the book via Netgalley in return for an honest and unbiased review.