REVIEWED BY JOHN ELLISON
Michelle Paver (Head of Zeus: 2019)
The introductory specia lmoment of this novel is a violent death (ice-pick to the head) in the year 1913 and in a Suffolk village (the author prefers the term ‘hamlet’). For this brutal act a respected and mysticism-obsessed landowner, Edmund Stearne, was convicted and asylumed for the remainder of his life.
But did he do it? His 16-year-old daughter, Maud, had told the court she had seen him, ice-pick in hand, set about the victim in the orchard. Had she lied?
‘Yes’, half a century later, alleges a journalist fulsomely guilty of sensational Sunday journalism and of writing a book pointing to Maud as the murderer. She, in 1966, is a close-mouthed spinster recluse approaching her seventieth year. Public interest in the case had soared due to the discovery of three archived and astonishing paintings by her father in captivity – all featuring a woman surrounded by malevolent little monsters – devils – bringing the work of a certain fifteenth century Mr Hieronymus Bosch to mind.
Angered by the ‘preposterous’ journalistic expose, Maud Stearne is ready to tell her story. It begins with her childhood, from which sweetness and light are largely absent. Present instead are her father’s fiercely comprehensive domestic despotism, and her mother’s annual pregnancies, most ending badly.
Maud faces thrashings for the smallest crimes. She cannot be unaffected by the superstitious beliefs of house servants. Her world is one in which an owl is as much a messenger as a bird, in which the undrained fen nearby is a place of spirits and danger, and the images of devils decorating the parish church are much in her head. A reader might see this emerging narrative as exceedingly grim soup.
But the book’s atmosphere changes and the soup becomes less grim. Maud’s unfortunate mother dies, Mr Edmund Stearne’s exercise of authority inexplicably becomes less brutally oppressive, and the fen, for Maud, becomes a friendlier place. Precocious, before long she becomes her father’s secretary. More mysteries wake up. While Edmund Stearne for his own reasons pursues research about a sin- tormented woman from the Bosch era, Maud pursues her own investigation into the origins of her father’s guilty feelings about his own past, through clandestine recourse to his diary.
So, what was Maud’s role in the ice-pick murder of 1913? A satisfying answer is supplied before the end.