Wakenhyrst by Michelle Paver

Michelle Paver is an author I’ve been meaning to try for years, since I noticed all the hype surrounding her 2010 novel Dark Matter. For some reason I never got round to reading that book or any of her others, but I put her new one, Wakenhyrst, on my 20 Books of Summer list to ensure that I would read it.

Wakenhyrst begins in the 1960s with the elderly Maud Stearne coming under pressure from journalists to tell the story of a murder committed by her father many years earlier. Maud is the only person who knows why Edmund Stearne left the house one day in 1913, armed with an ice-pick and a geological hammer, and killed the first person he came across ‘in the most bizarre and horrible way’. Edmund spent the rest of his life in an asylum and Maud stayed on alone in the family home – the old manor house, Wake’s End, in Suffolk – never speaking about the tragedy to anyone. But now the house needs urgent repairs and Maud can’t afford to pay for them. It seems that she will have to sell her story after all.

Maud then gives her account of the events leading up to the murder, beginning by describing her lonely childhood, growing up at Wake’s End on the edge of Guthlaf’s Fen, ‘the oldest, deepest, rottenest fen ever’, with a father who is cold and domineering and a mother who is constantly pregnant (although most of the pregnancies result in stillbirths or miscarriages). Edmund, her father, is a historian and enlists Maud’s help in transcribing a book believed to be written by Alice Pyett, a medieval mystic. The book that really interests Maud, however, is her father’s secret notebook in which he records his innermost thoughts and fears. Maud already knows that Edmund is not a nice person, but even she is shocked by some of the things she reads in his journal. And when he becomes obsessed with a medieval painting of the Last Judgement, known as ‘the Doom’, she worries about her father’s mental state. Are there really evil forces at work in the fens or are they all a product of Edmund Stearne’s imagination?

I enjoyed Wakenhyrst, but it wasn’t quite what I’d expected. I think because I’d seen Dark Matter and Paver’s other recent novel, Thin Air, described as creepy ghost stories, I assumed this book would be the same, but I didn’t find it very scary at all – although I’m not necessarily complaining about that! There are plenty of Gothic elements, and the setting – a remote fenland community steeped in folklore and superstition – is certainly atmospheric, but it is not really a horror story in the usual sense. The horror in this book is more of the psychological kind, in the portrayal of a man’s descent into madness and obsession. Edmund’s notebook entries, which are interspersed throughout Maud’s narrative, become more and more disturbing and outlandish as his fears of the Doom and of demons in the fens spiral out of control.

I can’t really say that I liked Maud, but my sympathies were with her, particularly after her mother dies – weakened by too many pregnancies, or ‘groanings’ as the young Maud thinks of them (because that’s how each one ends). Maud’s life from this point becomes very isolated and unhappy, trapped in the oppressive atmosphere of Wake’s End as her father, never the most pleasant of men to begin with, gradually loses his grip on reality. The only bright spots in her life are her love for her tame bird, Chatterpie, and her relationships with Clem, the under-gardener, and Jubal Rede, the ‘wild man’ who lives in the fen.

After a slow start, I found Wakenhyrst quite an entertaining novel and I do still want to try some of Michelle Paver’s other books. I’m sure I will get round to reading Dark Matter eventually and will be interested to see how it compares.

Thanks to Head of Zeus for providing a copy of this book for review via NetGalley.

This is book 5/20 of my 20 Books of Summer.

Melmoth by Sarah Perry

Having read Sarah Perry’s previous novel, The Essex Serpent, last year, I was looking forward to reading her new one, Melmoth. I read it in October, just before Halloween, and found it the perfect read for the time of year: dark, atmospheric and Gothic. It’s very different from The Essex Serpent, but with some similar ideas and themes.

At the centre of the novel is the legend of Melmoth the Witness, the woman who stood by Christ’s empty tomb and denied the Resurrection. As punishment for lying about what she had witnessed, she is condemned to wander the earth alone forever, dressed in black and with bare, bleeding feet, forced to bear witness instead to all of the cruelty and misery humans cause for one another. Desperate for some company in her exile, she appears to those who have lost hope and holds out her hand to them, urging them to join her in her wandering.

Helen Franklin, an Englishwoman who lives in Prague where she works as a translator, is fascinated by the tale of Melmoth. Her friend Karel, a Czech academic, has inherited a collection of papers which explore Melmoth’s story, and he passes these on to Helen. As she delves more deeply into the subject, she discovers more documents and journals giving different accounts of Melmoth from earlier times and from around the world. But the story of Melmoth could have a personal significance for Helen herself – because Helen is hiding a secret of her own, which could make her an ideal target for a mysterious woman in black.

Melmoth is a wonderfully atmospheric novel, partly because Prague is such a great setting which lends itself to strong, vivid descriptions, but I think Sarah Perry’s writing style also adds to the mood. Here is the opening paragraph in which we are introduced to Helen Franklin for the first time:

“Look! It is winter in Prague: night is rising in the mother of cities and over her thousand spires. Look down at the darkness around your feet, in all the lanes and alleys, as if it were a soft black dust swept there by a broom; look at the stone apostles on the old Charles Bridge, and at all the blue-eyed jackdaws on the shoulders of St John of Nepomuk. Look! She is coming over the bridge, head bent down to the whitening cobblestones: Helen Franklin, forty-two, neither short nor tall, her hair neither dark nor fair…”

The writing style and some of the devices the author uses, such as speaking directly to the reader, give it an almost timeless feel; although the main part of the novel is set in the modern day, there’s a sense that it could have taken place at any time in history – and of course, the Melmoth legend is a very old one. Through the stories-within-stories which emerge as we continue to read, we see how the influence of Melmoth has touched the lives of not just Helen Franklin, but many other characters throughout history, the most memorable being a boy who faces the horrors of the Holocaust. I enjoyed some of the stories while others interested me less and in the middle of the book I found my concentration wandering; the writing style, which works so well in other ways, creates a distance between the reader and the characters and I felt that I was watching them from afar rather than engaging with them as real people.

On the whole, I preferred The Essex Serpent, but I did love what this book had to say about forgiveness, atonement and loneliness. I’ve also been reminded of Charles Maturin’s 1820 novel, Melmoth the Wanderer, which it might be interesting to read and compare with this one.

The Coffin Path by Katherine Clements

This is Katherine Clements’ third novel set in 17th century England, but it has a different feel from the previous two. Rather than being a straight historical novel like The Crimson Ribbon and The Silvered Heart, The Coffin Path is a ghost story with a lonely rural setting and this time there is much less focus on the political and social events of the period.

It’s 1674 and there are signs that spring is on its way to the Yorkshire moors. The first lamb of the season is about to make its appearance, but it is a difficult birth and requires human assistance. Mercy Booth of Scarcross Hall, who farms the land and tends the sheep for her elderly father, helps to deliver the lamb into the world but its mother dies in the process – the first of several bad omens. Next, three ancient gold coins go missing from her father’s collection and reappear in unexpected places – and then Mercy begins to hear noises coming from a disused bedchamber upstairs.

Around this time, a stranger arrives looking for work. His name is Ellis Ferreby and although the local people are slow to trust him, he soon proves himself to be a good shepherd and a reliable worker. Ellis, however, is a man with secrets and it seems that he could have reasons of his own for coming to Scarcross Hall.

We slowly get to know both Mercy and Ellis as their stories alternate with each other throughout the novel. We hear what Mercy’s life has been like, growing up without a mother, with only her eccentric father, Bartram, and the servants for company – and we learn of her hopes for the future, which centre around the knowledge that one day, as her father’s only heir, she will inherit her beloved Scarcross Hall. As for Ellis, his background is shrouded in mystery and the truth about both his past and his purpose in being at Scarcross is only revealed later in the novel.

The 17th century is obviously a period which interests Katherine Clements and of which she has a lot of knowledge: The Crimson Ribbon was the story of a servant in the household of Oliver Cromwell, while The Silvered Heart was about a highwaywoman in the aftermath of the English Civil War. The Coffin Path is set just a few decades after those two books yet I felt that the story would have worked just as well if it had been set in almost any other period, either an earlier century or a later one. Although the effects of the recent Civil War do still linger in the lives of our characters, this only has any real significance towards the end of the book – otherwise, perhaps because Scarcross Hall is so isolated from the wider world, there is a general feeling of timelessness.

However, what the novel lacks in sense of time is made up for in sense of place. There are some wonderful descriptions of the moors surrounding Scarcross Hall, bringing to life this harsh but beautiful landscape. We also explore some of the old traditions and beliefs which survive in this remote part of England: the White Ladies is an ancient stone circle which the villagers associate with evil, while the Coffin Path of the title refers to the old track down which coffins would be carried from the moors to the church for burial. It’s no wonder that in a place like this, people like Ellis and Mercy are viewed with suspicion and distrust – Ellis because he is an outsider and Mercy because she is an independent, unconventional woman, still unmarried in her thirties and doing ‘a man’s work’ on the farm.

I enjoyed following the personal stories of both main characters and I liked the supernatural elements too: they were suitably eerie, but at the same time subtle enough to keep me wondering whether there really were ghosts involved or whether something else was happening. My only problem with the book (other than the fact that, like many novels these days, it is written in present tense) was that there were times when the plot seemed to be moving forward very slowly. It didn’t help that the first few chapters are devoted to describing, in great detail, the birth of a lamb; I would have preferred a stronger opening to pull me straight into the story.

Of the three books by Katherine Clements I have read, I think I liked both of the others better than this one, but it’s good to see that she has tried something slightly different here. What will she write next, I wonder?

Thanks to Headline for providing a copy of this book for review via NetGalley.

Fireside Gothic by Andrew Taylor

fireside-gothic Having read and enjoyed some of Andrew Taylor’s historical crime novels, I was immediately intrigued when I heard about Fireside Gothic, a hardback collection of three novellas which had originally been published separately in ebook form as ‘Kindle Singles’.  The stories are all quite different but, as Taylor says in his author’s note, they do share some common themes.

Broken Voices, the first of the three, has the feel of a classic Christmas ghost story. Set in an English cathedral city just before the First World War, it follows the adventures of two schoolboys whose circumstances mean they have to stay at school in the care of a retired teacher over the Christmas holidays. After listening to the teacher’s tales of mysterious happenings in the nearby cathedral, one of the boys begins to hear ghostly music and persuades his friend to sneak into the cathedral with him late one night to investigate.

Broken Voices gets the collection off to a good start.  Although I would describe it as an eerie story rather than a scary one, with its haunting atmosphere, winter setting and vivid descriptions of the deserted cathedral, this is the most obviously ‘gothic’ of the stories in the book.

The second story, The Leper House, is my favourite. Set in the modern day this time, our narrator is driving home from his sister’s funeral when his car breaks down on a lonely country road near the Suffolk coast. Setting off through the rain and wind in search of help, he manages to find shelter for the night and during his stay he has a brief but unforgettable encounter with a woman who lives in a neighbouring cottage. In the morning, he discovers that both the woman and the cottage have disappeared – and becomes obsessed with finding an explanation for his strange experience.

I can’t say too much, but the story then goes in a direction which was completely unexpected and which I loved. It raises a lot of fascinating questions and some of them are still unanswered at the end. There are some ideas here which I would have liked to have seen developed further; this story has all the ingredients of a full-length novel and I was sorry it had to come to an end so soon!

The collection finishes with The Scratch, another contemporary story. Unlike the first two, this one is narrated by a woman. Her name is Clare and she lives in the Forest of Dean with her husband, Gerald, and their pet cat. At the beginning of the story, their orphaned nephew, Jack, comes to stay with them on his return from fighting in Afghanistan. Jack’s time in the army has left him with a fear of cats, a dislike of enclosed spaces and a scratch on his arm which won’t seem to heal.

This is an interesting story, but the focus is mainly on the complicated relationships between Clare, Gerald and Jack, so the supernatural elements are much more subtle than in the other novellas. This is my least favourite of the three, although there are some clever little twists at the end which took me by surprise!

Fireside Gothic is an entertaining and unusual collection. The title and cover had led me to expect something slightly different – something spookier and, well, more gothic – but I did still enjoy these three novellas, particularly the middle one.  While it’s still winter, this would be an ideal time to get yourself a copy of this book and spend a cold, dark evening reading it by the fire.

Thanks to HarperCollins for providing a review copy of Fireside Gothic.

The Romance of the Forest by Ann Radcliffe

the-romance-of-the-forest If you were going to write a Gothic novel, what sort of things would you include? Dark forests? Ruined abbeys? Stormy weather? Wicked noblemen? Secret manuscripts? Skeletons? Well, you’ll find all of those and more in Ann Radcliffe’s 1791 classic, The Romance of the Forest. Radcliffe was one of the earliest pioneers of the Gothic novel and, while I can see that her books won’t appeal to everyone, I’ve now read four of them and enjoyed them all – although this one is not her best.

The story is set in 17th century France and opens with Pierre de la Motte, who has found himself in debt, fleeing Paris with his wife and servants, hoping to get as far away from his creditors as possible. Losing their way in the dark, they see lights shining from a house in the distance and Pierre knocks on the door to ask for help. He gets more than he bargained for, however, when the man who answers the door pushes a beautiful young lady towards him and begs Pierre to take her away with him. Pierre agrees and the family, with the addition of the girl, whose name is Adeline, continue on their way.

They find refuge in an old, deserted abbey and decide to settle there for a while, safe in the knowledge that their pursuers are unlikely to find them in such a remote and gloomy place. Inside the abbey, though, there are new terrors to face. The discovery of a skeleton, a rusty dagger and a faded manuscript point to a murder in the abbey’s history – and when the sinister Marquis de Montalt arrives on the scene, Adeline senses that her own life could also be in danger.

Ann Radcliffe is not known for her strong heroines and Adeline is no exception, so be prepared for some fainting and swooning and lots of melodrama. Having said that, she does have strong principles, and tries, in her own way, to fight for what she wants and believes in. Like Emily St Aubert in The Mysteries of Udolpho, she also has a habit of picking up her lute and breaking into song from time to time (giving Radcliffe an opportunity to insert her own poems into the text).

I didn’t find this book quite as atmospheric as her others (certain sections of The Italian, in particular, have a darkness and an eeriness that are never matched in this book), but her descriptive writing is still beautiful:

Dark woods, intermingled with bold projections of rock, sometimes barren, and sometimes covered with the purple bloom of wild flowers, impended over the lake, and were seen in the clear mirror of its waters. The wild and alpine heights which rose above were either crowned with perpetual snows, or exhibited tremendous crags and masses of solid rock, whose appearance was continually changing as the rays of light were variously reflected on their surface, and whose summits were often wrapt in impenetrable mists.

I also enjoyed seeing the plot unfold in the final third of the novel, with revelation following upon revelation. There are some coincidences which are too convenient or too ridiculous to be believed and any big holes in the plot are explained away as ‘fate’ or ‘destiny’. These are things that would bother me in any other type of novel, but in an 18th century Gothic novel, they’re exactly what I would expect and so I was able to suspend my disbelief without any problems!

This is a weaker Radcliffe novel, in my opinion, so if you’ve never read any of her books before I would probably recommend beginning with a different one. The Italian, The Mysteries of Udolpho and A Sicilian Romance are the others I’ve read and any of those might be a better starting point.

The Goddess and the Thief by Essie Fox

The Goddess and the Thief “A diamond. A curse. An obsession.” These are the words on the front cover of Essie Fox’s third novel and they give us a good idea of the type of story we can expect to find inside. The Goddess and the Thief is a Victorian Gothic novel (like the previous two books by this author – The Somnambulist, which I’ve read, and Elijah’s Mermaid, which I haven’t) and combines a complex plot with an atmospheric setting and a sense of mystery.

The novel begins in colonial India, where a little girl called Alice Willoughby is growing up in the care of her beloved ayah, Mini, having lost her mother in childbirth. Alice loves India – she loves the warmth, the vivid colours, the stories Mini tells of Parvati and Shiva – and is heartbroken when her father decides to take her back to England to live with her Aunt Mercy. Alice is lonely and miserable in her new home and finds Mercy cold and uncaring. Things become even worse when she discovers that her aunt is a medium and that she will be forced to take part in Mercy’s fraudulent séances and other spiritualist activities.

Alice’s life reaches another turning point when she and Mercy meet the mysterious Lucian Tilsbury, a man who has recently returned from India and is planning to involve the two women in an elaborate scheme…a scheme revolving around the Koh-i-Noor diamond, the famous jewel claimed by the British at the end of the Anglo-Sikh war. Some say the diamond is cursed and others that it is blessed, but one thing that is certain is that it exerts a strange power over everyone who comes into contact with it.

You may be thinking that this sounds like The Moonstone, but while there are some similarities with the Wilkie Collins mystery, this is a very different book and the story surrounding the diamond took some surprising twists and turns which I definitely wasn’t expecting! I was particularly intrigued by the occasional appearances of Queen Victoria and the Maharajah Duleep Singh, two people for whom the Koh-i-Noor has a very important significance.

The scenes set in India at the beginning of the book were among my favourites and I was sorry when we left India behind for the gloom of Aunt Mercy’s house in Windsor. The mood of the novel then becomes increasingly dark and oppressive and I was pleased that tales of the Hindu gods and of Alice’s life in Lahore continued to be woven into the plot. I liked Alice as a central character and enjoyed following her adventures, while also feeling afraid and worried for her as she found herself betrayed, badly treated and unsure of whom to trust.

My only problem with The Goddess and the Thief was that there were certain passages which I found confusing and difficult to follow, partly because the use of opium played a role in the story, which meant that the boundaries between reality and unreality often became blurred. I appreciate that this was done intentionally, to make Alice’s situation even more frightening, but it was the one aspect of the novel that didn’t work very well for me. Of course, it could have been my own fault for not concentrating hard enough!

Having enjoyed both this book and The Somnambulist (this one slightly more than the first, I think), I will have to read Elijah’s Mermaid soon!

The Girl Who Couldn’t Read by John Harding

The Girl Who Couldn't Read Three years ago I read John Harding’s Florence and Giles and loved it, so I was pleased to find a copy of The Girl Who Couldn’t Read in the library. It’s a sequel and will make more sense if you’ve read Florence and Giles first, but don’t worry if you haven’t because it should still work perfectly well as a standalone.

The story is set in the 1890s and is narrated by Doctor Shepherd, who has just arrived at his new job in a women’s mental hospital on an isolated island in New England. Taking a tour of the hospital’s facilities with his new colleague, Doctor Morgan, he is appalled by some of the methods being used to control the patients. When he tells the other doctor of his concerns, Morgan agrees to an experiment: Shepherd can choose one of the women to work with using his own methods in an attempt to prove whether gentle, humane treatment can be as effective as harshness and brutality.

The patient Doctor Shepherd picks for his experiment is a young girl known as Jane Dove – she says she can’t remember her real name, her age or anything about her past. She is also unable to read (and claims that she has never been allowed to learn) and, according to Doctor Morgan, she can’t even use the English language correctly. It seems Shepherd’s task could turn out to be a lot harder than he’d expected! After spending some time with Jane, though, he begins to realise that while the girl’s speech is unconventional, the way she uses nouns and verbs actually makes perfect sense.

She invented new words from old, often by changing the way they were used. She said “we outsided” rather than “we went outside”, or “I downstairsed” in place of “I went downstairs”, both of which I found perfectly clear and actually more economical than the conventional expression.

Jane immediately reminded me of a character from Florence and Giles – another girl who used language in a creative and unusual way. As Doctor Shepherd continues to work with her, encouraging her to search her memory and giving her books to look at, the connection between Jane and that other girl becomes clear. But what about Shepherd himself? It’s obvious from the very first chapter that he is not who he says he is either…and possibly not even a doctor at all!

I love books with unreliable narrators and Doctor Shepherd is a very intriguing one. We know that he is unreliable, we know that he is not being honest with us – but we don’t know why and we don’t know who he really is. The truth about Shepherd isn’t revealed until near the end of the novel, but along the way there are plenty of plot twists and surprises! And to make things even more interesting, Doctor Shepherd and Jane Dove aren’t the only people in the story with secrets to hide; there’s also a third mystery and this one made me think of a classic Victorian novel – an impression that grew stronger as the story progressed.

The Girl Who Couldn’t Read is a great book – it’s maybe not quite as good as Florence and Giles but it comes very close! I did wonder whether the setting might make it too similar to The Asylum by John Harwood, which I read just a few weeks ago, but fortunately they are two very different novels with very different plots and characters. I thoroughly enjoyed them both!