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.

The Last Pier by Roma Tearne

This is the second novel I have read by Roma Tearne and very different from the first I read, The Swimmer, which was the story of a woman’s relationship with a Tamil refugee from Sri Lanka. I had the impression that all of her books covered similar themes of immigration, asylum and conflict in Sri Lanka, so I was surprised when I picked up The Last Pier, one of her more recent novels from 2015, and found that it was set on a fruit farm in rural England just before the start of World War II.

It’s the summer of 1939 and Cecily Maudsley is thirteen years old – that difficult age, no longer a young child but not an adult yet either. Cecily watches enviously as Rose, her beautiful sixteen-year-old sister, becomes the centre of attention that summer and catches the eye of every man in Suffolk, it seems. But Rose’s life is not as perfect as it appears; we learn in the very first chapter that a tragedy is going to take place – and that Cecily will be blamed for it.

The Last Pier is a novel in which secrets, revelations and surprises play an important part, so I will have to be careful not to say too much. Some of the secrets take a long time to be revealed; in fact, Cecily herself only uncovers the whole truth twenty-nine years later when she returns to England after a long absence. Part of the novel is written from the perspective of the young Cecily, giving an account of the events of 1939 as they happen, and part from the perspective of the older Cecily, remembering moments from the past. The way Roma Tearne handles the passing of time is very effective, moving between past and present to unveil the clues that we must put together before the full picture can be seen – but it also means the story feels very fragmented, which can be confusing at times.

There’s plenty of suspense as we wait to find out exactly what happens to Rose and who is responsible for it, and there is a feeling of danger and foreboding which hangs over the whole novel. At the same time, the outbreak of war is approaching, bringing with it the sense that very soon the lives of all of the Maudsleys will be changed forever. The novel covers an aspect of the Second World War which I haven’t read about very often – the fate of Italian people who were living in Britain at the beginning of the war – and this is explored through the story of the Molinello family who had arrived in Suffolk from Tuscany more than a decade earlier and opened an ice cream parlour not far from the Maudsleys’ farm. The two families have become very close over the years and, when Italy’s role in the war causes the Molinellos to be regarded with suspicion, the Maudsleys find that their fortunes have become entwined with their Italian friends’.

Cecily is particularly interested in what happens to the Molinello family because she is in love with Carlo, one of the Molinello sons. However, it seems to her that Carlo, like everyone else, only has eyes for Rose. As Cecily’s jealousy increases, she begins to watch Rose’s movements, following her when she can and eavesdropping on conversations. She also becomes curious about Robert Wilson, a stranger who claims to have been sent to Suffolk on government business, to carry out a survey of the farmland in preparation for the war. By watching and listening, Cecily picks up lots of little pieces of information about Rose, about Mr Wilson and about everyone else on the farm, but she lacks the maturity and experience to be able to understand the implications of what she has discovered.

Roma Tearne writes so well from the point of view of a teenage girl. I could really feel Cecily’s confusion as she tries to make sense of the things she has learned, her frustration at not quite being able to grasp what is going on, and her envy towards her sister, who appears to have everything Cecily wants and doesn’t have. I loved this beautifully written novel and I’m pleased that I’ve been reminded of Roma Tearne’s books, seven years after reading The Swimmer. I’m looking forward to reading some of her others.

Sandlands by Rosy Thornton

This is a land of sand. The earth hereabouts is nothing but; it’s a wonder anything grows in it at all.

Sandlands Sandlands is a beautifully written collection of sixteen short stories, all of which share a common setting: a small English village on the coast of Suffolk. I’m not usually a reader of short stories (my blog title should be a clue) but I do enjoy them from time to time – and I was surprised by just how much I enjoyed reading this particular collection. The problem I sometimes have with short stories is that they tend to lack the plot development and depth of character I look for in full-length novels. I often find them unsatisfying and…well, too short.

Sandlands is not like that. The stories are the perfect length – not too long and not too short – and each one feels complete. Although they share some similar themes such as the beauty of nature and the relationships people have with the area in which they live, the stories are also quite varied. Some are written in the first person and some in the third, some are set entirely in the present and some take us into the past, some are sad and some are funny. I’m not going to comment on all sixteen of them here, but will pick out a few which I found particularly interesting.

One of my favourites was All the Flowers Gone, a poignant story which explores the bond between three generations of women: Poppy, a botanist who finds a rare flower growing at a disused air base; her mother, Rosa, who campaigned against nuclear weapons at the same base in the 1980s; and finally, her grandmother, Lilian, who worked there during the 1940s and fell in love with a bomber pilot. I loved the way the lives of these three women were linked not only to each other but also to one specific location and to the flowers which grew there.

Another story in which the past begins to merge with the present is The Witch Bottle, a tale of love and revenge which unfolds when a woman moves into an old house and discovers a connection with Patience Spall, a girl accused of witchcraft in the seventeenth century. Like many of the stories in the book, this one has a touch of the supernatural. While I wouldn’t describe Sandlands as a book of ghost stories in the traditional sense, some do have a ghostly atmosphere and a sense that more is going on than meets the eye.

I also enjoyed the final two stories in the collection. Curlew Call is written from the perspective of a young woman who decides to spend a year working as a companion to Agnes, an artist who is confined to a wheelchair. The narrator loves nature and is captivated by the Suffolk landscape with its salt marshes, mudflats and reed beds and the distinctive sound of the curlews calling. As she settles into her new job and home, she makes some surprising discoveries about her elderly employer. The following story, Mackerel, also looks at the relationship between two women, this time a grandmother and granddaughter: Hattie, in her twenties, who has a degree and has travelled across Europe, and eighty-nine-year-old Ganny (as she is known) who has spent her whole life living in a small fishing village and knows everything there is to know about mackerel.

These are just some of the wonderful stories to be found in Sandlands. Others that stand out include Whispers, the story of Dr Whybrow, an academic who buys a Martello tower on the coast, and The Watcher of Souls, where an owl guards a secret stash of love letters hidden in the woods. I wish I could tell you about the rest of the stories as well, as I found something to enjoy and admire in every one of them, but this review is already long enough and I need to leave something for other readers to discover for themselves!

I have previously read and enjoyed one of Rosy Thornton’s other books, The Tapestry of Love, so I was delighted to be offered a copy of Sandlands by the author for review. Many thanks, Rosy!

River of Destiny by Barbara Erskine

This is the first Barbara Erskine novel I’ve read. Knowing how popular she is and that I usually enjoy the type of books she writes – books that combine history and the supernatural – I’ve been meaning to try one for a long time but have never actually got around to it until now.

River of Destiny is set in three different time periods, one contemporary and two historical. The contemporary story follows Zoe and Ken Lloyd, who have moved away from London and bought a converted barn in Suffolk near the River Deben where Ken can indulge in his hobby, sailing. Zoe is not very happy with the move as she does not share Ken’s passion for boats and has had to leave behind a job she enjoyed. To make things worse, she is starting to sense ghostly presences in and around their new home. Gradually Zoe begins to learn that some of these paranormal occurrences could be echoes of The Old Barn’s eventful past.

In the novel’s two historical storylines we learn more about the events of the past which are haunting Zoe in the present day. The first of these is set in the Victorian period and tells the story of Dan, a blacksmith who finds himself a target of the scheming Lady Emily Crosby. Dan’s involvement with Emily will have tragic consequences. The third storyline is set in Anglo-Saxon England in the year 865 where we meet another smith, Eric, and his wife Edith. Amid the threat of a Viking invasion, Eric has been asked to forge a special sword for his lord, which he calls Destiny Maker – but it seems that the sword will not be given the chance to fulfil its destiny.

These three stories all take place in the same area of Suffolk, although in different periods, and are linked by sightings of a ghostly Viking ship sailing up the River Deben through a thick mist. Of the three storylines the one I found the most compelling was the contemporary one, which I thought had the most interesting group of characters: the mysterious Leo who lives alone in The Old Forge, Rosemary Formby who is on a mission to prove that walkers should have the right to cross a farmer’s field, and twelve year-old Jade whose family own one of the other barn conversions, The Summer Barn, and who is determined to cause trouble for Zoe and Leo. It surprised me that the present day story was my favourite, as with my love of historical fiction I usually prefer the historical parts of multiple time-frame novels!

I enjoyed the first few chapters of the book and was anticipating a great read, but as I got further into the story I started to lose interest. I think the problem was that I just didn’t like the way the novel was structured. The time shifts were a bit too frequent and abrupt for me and I also thought the story was told using too many different perspectives. Sometimes each section would only be two or three pages long – or even less – which meant I kept being pulled out of the flow of the story just as I was starting to get interested in it. I’m sure I would have enjoyed this book a lot more if I’d been able to get fully immersed in one storyline and one set of characters before moving on to the next.

So, I was left with mixed feelings about River of Destiny and I’m not sure if I really want to read any of Barbara Erskine’s other novels. If you’re a fan maybe you can convince me to give her another chance?