REVIEWED BY JANET BAYLISS
A. K. Blakemore (Granta Books: 2021)
Manningtree is a compact, attractive little town on the Stour estuary concealing a dark secret. During the English Civil War (1642-1651) it was the scene for the beginning of a series of witch hunts that led to the deaths of hundreds of women and men. From this grim background poet A. K. Blakemore weaves a spell-binding novel based upon contemporary records.
Rebecca West is the protagonist and much of it is told through her eyes. She is from a poor background, living on the edge of society with her strange widowed mother. She longs to escape, and to that end has taken lessons in reading and writing from a clerk named John Edes. Her life, and that of the town in general, is turned upside down by the coming of the self-styled ‘Witchfinder General’, Matthew Hopkins.
Strange things happen and accusations are made against women in the town, one of whom is Rebecca West. The novel follows the stories of the interrogations, torture and eventual trial and hanging of a number of these women and tells of the challenges Rebecca West faces in order to try to survive. In an arresting, immediate fashion the book captures the sheer weirdness of the time and the events involved. This is despite several twists and turns and an ending which may surprise those who base their knowledge of Matthew Hopkins from half-recalled legend and a certain 1968 film.
Being a poet, the author uses language in her novel accordingly, including some old, rare and vivid words with unusual constructions, helping to give the book a sense of ‘otherness’. I found this to be a gripping first novel with urgent messages about poisonous false claims and the subjugation of women, still highly relevant in our febrile, accusative modern world.