Wakenhyrst by Michelle Paver is a creepy atmospheric novel that has been described as a ghost story, but the only ghosts in it are in the minds of the people. Which of course makes them enormously powerful and frightening. I found myself eager to return to this book, resenting time away from it. Paver is a skilled storyteller and I am coming to anticipate her new books with relish. If you haven’t read her adult novels, you are in for a treat.
The story starts with a newspaper article written in 1966 entitled ’The Mystery of Edmund Stearne’. The journalist, who has spoken to Stearne’s daughter Maud about the conviction of her father for murder in 1913, casts doubt on Maud’s version of events. Could Maud be the guilty one? The story is set at Wake’s End, a country house at Wakenhyrst, a village beside the Guthlaf’s Fen in Suffolk. Paver creates this setting with all the intensity and atmosphere with which she created the Arctic in Dark Matter and the Himalayas in Thin Air. The fens haunt every aspect of life at the house and on bad days, when the weather closes in and the mind is in turmoil, the fens invade the rooms too. The rotting stench. A scratching at the windows. Damp and infection. Edmund hates the fens and forbids Maud and her older brother Richard from crossing the bridge; Nurse too is full of scary stories of ferishes and hobby-lanterns that entice people to their death. Others are more pragmatic, depending on the fens for their living and for food.
When Maud’s mother dies in childbirth everything changes at Wake’s End. Richard is sent away to school and thirteen-year old Maud becomes housekeeper and then secretary for her father who is a medieval historian. Edmund’s odd behavior begins when he uncovers an ancient painting in the graveyard of local church St Guthlaf’s. He imagines that the eyes of the Doom, the painted devil, are staring at him with purpose, that the devil knows his secret. The Doom is restored and hung again in the church, but in a locked room. When Edmund kills Maud’s favourite magpie, Chatterpie, her dislike of her father becomes a mission to fathom the truth of his odd behavior.
This is a thoughtful mystery rather than a thriller, the danger and threats unfold at a steady pace and the questions continue until the end. What was Edmund’s crime and how far will he go to hide the truth? Why does he hate the fens so much? How exactly do the strands of waterweed appear on his pillow? Not so much a ghost story as a mystery of rational understanding clouded by folktale, medieval legend and tales of ancient witchcraft and superstition.
The story unfolds through Maud’s eyes and the excerpts she reads of her father’s diaries, plus Edmund’s translations of a medieval mystic Alice Pyett and The Life of St Guthlaf. Although Edmund is an unsympathetic character, I did pause at one point to wonder the reliability of Maud’s account. Maud is an impressive character; denied education because she is a girl she reads secretly and resents her father’s nightly use of her mother, multiple pregnancies which eventually lead to Maman’s death. Paver is good at drawing a picture of the community; fen-dweller Jubal Rede, assistant gardener Clem Walker, servant Ivy, rector Mr Broadstairs, Dr Grayson and village wisewoman Boddy Thrussel. Modern medicine beside folk remedies. Church of England beside centuries-old folklore.
So creepy is the story, so isolated is this house beside the fen, that the setting feels older than Edwardian England. It could easily be set in the 19thcentury, excepting the references to trains and telegraphs. The isolation of the community is key to the crimes committed; truth may disappear, be disguised and denied, but someone always sees, someone always knows. The fen holds the answers.
Here are my reviews of Thin Air and The Outsiders, also by Michelle Paver, and a humorous take on Torak from the Wolf Brother’ series.
If you like this, try:-
‘The Witchfinder’s Sister’ by Beth Underdown
‘The Man in the Picture’ by Susan Hill
‘The Little Stranger’ by Sarah Waters
And if you’d like to tweet a link to THIS post, here’s my suggested tweet:
WAKENHYRST by @MichellePaver #bookreview https://wp.me/p5gEM4-3Yb via @SandraDanby