The Manningtree Witches – A. K. Blakemore (2021)

Winner of the 2021 Desmond Elliott Prize which is given to the best debut novel and a book I highlighted in my 2021 round-up of “Books I Should Have Read”.  At the time I mentioned “A quick look at Amazon reviews suggest some readers have not really got it which might make it a bit of a Marmite novel.”  Well, having now read it it’s time to reveal where I am on the love/hate divide and just like the actual yeast extract spread, I love it.

I do have a bias towards historical novels, 7 years of reviewsrevues have taught me this.  The 1640’s setting is going to tick boxes for me.  I also like it when there is a fiction/fact overlap, particularly in the use of characters (most existed here) and documentation.  The author weaves in (but does not overdo) statements from the 1645 Witch Trials.  I have a taste for darkness, and the work of the Witchfinder General, Matthew Hopkins certainly brings that but perhaps the main reason I am giving this debut five stars might have been the reason it turned off some readers.  The language is rich, detailed and poetic, just occasionally over-wordy, this award-winning poet certainly came up with a few words I had never heard before.  I actually felt this added to the depth of the novel and enriched the sensory experiences such evocative language conjures up.

This is the narrative of nineteen year old Rebecca West, daughter of Anne, who has her own local nickname, the Beldam West, a good-natured woman who keeps an eye on the less fortunate including the ancient one-legged Old Mother Clarke, but who doesn’t suffer fools gladly.  Her occasional clashes with neighbours does not help her when Witchfinder Matthew Hopkins takes over the local inn and begins his puritanical interfering into the lives of these country folk in Manningtree, Essex.

Plot-wise we know what it going to come.  A group of women will be singled out and victimised and manoeuvred into confession.  Rebecca finds herself in this situation because of her mother and others she associates with and not even her blossoming relationship with Hopkins’ Secretary, Matthew Eades will help.

Characters are strong here, some of the women are adept at saying the wrong thing at the wrong time.  I felt myself both cringing and full of sympathy for them.  The author has avoided the stereotypical baddie in her creation of Hopkins which we might have expected from horror films (and some of the criticism aimed at this book has been because of this) but her depiction of him as misguided and hypocritical rather than out and out evil makes him seem more rounded as a character.  There is often black humour in the townsfolks’ dealing with him and the situations he brings about. 

The subject matter was always going to win me over but A.K Blakemore’s poetic recreation of this dangerous world was so rich.  The evidence sought to prove consorting with the Devil is ludicrous and the seventeenth century prejudice, hypocrisy and victimisation still resonates in this world we live in.  The author, in her Afterword, acknowledges areas of the world where individuals are still murdered because of accusations of witchcraft.  This is a potent debut.

The Manningtree Witches was published by Granta in 2021.

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