A tale of mystery and imagination laced with terror.
Head of Zeus|4 April 2019|e-book 5683 KB|Review copy|4*
Wakenhyrst by Michelle Paver is a dark and sinister tale, full of menace and suspense. It’s a slow-burner, told through different points of view, that builds to a climax with a sad twist in the story right at the end – one I hadn’t seen coming. It’s set in a remote hamlet in the Suffolk Fens, an eerie waterlogged landscape where Edmund Stearn, a historian, and his family live in a large manor house, Wake’s End, on the edge of the Fens, said to be the oldest and most rotten of fens. It was a place of dread, haunted by spirits and the home of eels and other foul creatures.
The novel begins with a magazine report in 1966 on the events that took place at Wake’s End in 1913 when sixteen-year old Maud Stearne watched her father, Edmund, leave the house, armed with an ice-pick and a geological hammer and murder the first person he came across in the orchard. Maud was the only witness. She is now a recluse and in 1913 she had only spoken briefly at his trial. But now she needs money to repair the ancient manor house that is her home and has invited the journalist to Wake’s End. He believes Edmund was innocent and hopes to discover the truth – was Edmund mad and what did he write in his notebook that Maud has never confirmed even existed? Maud’s evidence was full of holes – did she commit the murder and frame her father, who took the blame?
Edmund never explained why he did it, or how he ended up in the well, screaming with terror as he fought off a mass of eels. He spent the rest of his life in an asylum, where he created three paintings that astonished the world – grotesque paintings full of colour and tiny malevolent faces leering out of the canvas, the stuff of nightmares.
What follows is a story of disintegrating madness, revealed in Edmund Stearne’s notebook as the reporter persuades Maud to tell her story, going back to her childhood, when her mother was still alive. Her mother got the same illness every year, or so Maud believed – an illness where her middle swelled, resulting in a period of ‘groaning’, as her middle would burst and ending with either ‘a bloody chamberpot’, or a dead baby. When she died Maud blamed her father and believed he was insane when he became obsessed with the medieval painting of the Last Judgement, known as the Doom, that he found in the churchyard. He connects the Doom with the writings of Alice Pyett, a medieval mystic whose book he was transcribing.
There is a sense of impending disaster as the tale unfolds. Whilst the fens are a source of dread and fear for Edmund, they are a place of solace and beauty for Maud. The book is full of the folklore and customs of the local people and their belief in the spirits that haunt the fen – ferishes, Jack-o’-Lanterns and Black Shuck – Michelle Paver notes in her Author’s Note that she has not invented these. Maud’s childhood, her fear of her father and his violence towards her and her mother, are scenes that are based on the misogynist attitudes of the period.
Maud’s life was run by her father’s rules. She had no friends or companions apart from the servants, whose lives were ruled by superstitions, until she met Jubal Rede, the wild man who lived in the fen. He was kind to her and taught her the ways of the fen. But there is also Chatterpie, the magpie she rescued from the well and grew to love, and then Clem, the young under-gardener who she also grew to love.
It’s a compelling story, steeped in atmosphere, with characters typical of an earlier age whose lives were oppressed and isolated from the wider world. I loved the setting, the mysterious fenland, the horrific gothic and dark nature of the story, the mystery of the murder and most of all I loved Maud and her independent spirit that brought her through the nightmare.
My thanks to the publishers, Head of Zeus for my review copy via NetGalley.