The Manningtree Witches, by A.K. Blakemore

Sometimes you can go a longish stretch without reading a book that really amazes you – a book that fills you with awe, one that you can truly say you ‘love’. Then such a book comes along and the gratitude and pleasure that you feel is redoubled by the wait. Such a book for me is The Manningtree Witches, A. K. Blakemore’s debut novel and one of my spoils from this year’s London Book Fair. I read it early in May after many weeks’ fare of enjoyable, well-made and admirable books, none of which, nevertheless, quite reached the heights that this novel achieves.

The Manningtree Witches is classified as historical fiction, but it is as surely a work of crime fiction. It tells of the witch-hunts pursued by Matthew Hopkins, the self-styled Witchfinder General, in the seventeenth century. It is a novel at once lovely and appalling, the world which it depicts a place of ingenuousness and sin, white magic and black magic, faith and cynicism. Blakemore weaves her tale in words that are elaborately rich and beautiful; the speech the characters employ is a brilliant reconstruction of the language of people who lived only a generation or two after Shakespeare, a serious and melodious tongue which sometimes conceals, sometime reveals the decadence at the heart of their society. It was no surprise to me to learn that Amy Blakemore is also a distinguished poet. 

Rebecca West, the protagonist of the story and also its narrator, is a survivor. Clear-eyed and intelligent, she is capable of weighing shrewdly the characters and personalities of those around her – though she is not without her weaknesses, among which is her girlish infatuation for Master John Edes, the church clerk. Eventually Edes takes advantage of this, but he is too cowardly to acknowledge their intimacy. Rebecca is ahead of her time in understanding whence springs the muddled superstition that governs everyday life:

“I am not superstitious – I am useful. I have taught myself to watch and listen. I have seen enough suffering in my life to know that the diseased mind is prone to invent all manner of phantoms that might hover over a person. Better to blame a sprite or a puck for the souring of the milk or the tangles in the horse’s mane than to concede one’s own slovenly habits may have contributed to the situation.”

Rebecca’s intelligence shines out, making her superior to the other women in the novel, all of whom are seen through her eyes. Generally, the female characters, for all their coarseness and jealousies, are morally superior to the males, but also more vulnerable. The following short passage conveys the condescension and cruelty of Hopkins and John Stearne (“the second richest man in Manningtree”):

“At that moment Misters Matthew Hopkins and John Stearne emerge from the dock office across the way, lovely furs frothing at their collars in the spry wind and begin to pick their way along the road. They pass the women with a reluctant tipping of their hats, like crows’ sharp heads to a wound.”

There is also implied hypocrisy here, though Hopkins gradually emerges as a complex character, perhaps – but only perhaps – as deluded and vulnerable as his victims.

The Manningtree Witches is the best historical novel I have read since The Miniaturist (and that was published more than six years ago!). It won the Desmond Elliott prize in 2021. I am certain that Amy Blakemore, who is only at the start of her career as a novelist, will go on to win many more prizes and accolades. She is already one of the best novelists of her generation.

Books: new friends in 2022

Happy New Year! I hope 2022 was a good year for you and that 2023 will be even better.

On the global stage, 2022 was an extraordinary year and – I think most people would agree – not in a good way. For me personally, it was quite a special year. I hit a landmark birthday; like others, I was able to travel freely for the first time since the beginning of 2020; and, most important of all, I caught up with many old friends and made several new friends and acquaintances. In the latter, I include authors new to me, most of whom I did not meet and may never meet, but whose work I have now discovered and come to relish hugely.

It’s impossible to place them in any kind of hierarchy, so, in true bookseller tradition, I shall describe four of my discoveries here in alphabetical order of the author’s name.

The Manningtree Witches, by A.K. Blakemore. I’ve written about this book before, so just to say that, dipping into it again, I am still blown away by the power of the narrative and Blakemore’s imaginative exploration of the English language.

Lessons in Chemistry, by Bonnie Garmus. This is a truly stellar tour-de-force which captures with ironical good humour the prejudices and misogyny of the 1950s and ’60s. Along the way it introduces the reader to the main principles of chemistry and – something that few critics seem to have picked up on – shows that an intelligent woman can be a good cook and a nurturer and take an interest in her appearance while still holding down a job. It’s also about relationships and how rigid social norms can destroy them; the fragility of life; the joys of keeping a dog; and the first stirrings of feminism. Above all, it is arrestingly written – there is barely a false or superfluous word – and achingly funny.

Oh William! by Elizabeth Strout. I hadn’t read anything by Elizabeth Strout until I came across this book, and I was astonished her work had passed me by. She is clearly well known and exceedingly accomplished. The novel tells the story of Lucy Barton, a successful writer who meets her first husband again after many years apart. Her second, happier marriage has recently ended in widowhood. When she meets William again, the reader understands after a few sentences that she was right to end the relationship. William leads a desiccated life which runs in grooves. He is afraid of change, even wanting to eat the same meal all the time because it is safe and no trouble. (There are aspects of this novel that remind me of Anne Tyler’s Ladder of Years.) The encounters with William primarily allow Strout to create a wonderful series of comedy-of-manners scenes, but there is a more serious sub-text. Gradually, Lucy’s good-humoured tolerance of this painfully circumscribed man gives her a new grace and wisdom, allowing her to ponder some of the deeper meanings of life – though always with irony and an exquisite lightness of touch.

Miss Pym disposes, by Josephine Tey. This is the only ‘classic’ novel in today’s list, though I have read – and enjoyed – several others this year. I bought it in The Mysterious Bookshop in New York (an Aladdin’s Cave of treasures, especially for aficionados of crime fiction and thrillers). I knew, of course, that Tey wrote crime fiction, but previously I had read only her historical whodunnit, Daughter of Time. For me, Miss Pym disposes stands out for its exquisite portrayal of character and for capturing exactly the hothouse, hysterical atmosphere that prevailed in a single-sex boarding school in the 1940s (the book was originally published in 1948). The identity of the killer, when it is revealed, is less of a surprise. I shall certainly read more Teys – and, having enjoyed this book, I am now in quest of other novels from the Golden Age of crime – Agatha Christies, Marjorie Allinghams, Patricia Highsmiths, Dorothy L. Sayerses. I have read some books by each of these authors, but all were prolific and there are many more I haven’t read to enjoy in 2023! Recommendations welcome.

I have already wished you a Happy New Year. Now I’d like to wish you a happy reading year, too!

Finale to my National Crime Reading Month daily blog series

Northern marsh orchid, Ring of Brodgar, Orkney

Today is the last day of June and therefore today’s is the last of my daily blog posts to celebrate Crime Reading Month. I’d like to pay tribute to the CWA for coming up with the idea of CRM and to the countless people who have supported it. I’d particularly like to thank everyone who has contributed to these thirty posts by providing so many magnificent insights and vignettes and for giving up their time so generously to help me. It’s impossible to pinpoint highlights – I feel as if I’ve been on a high all month! – although a few moments stand out for me personally. I was struck by Hannah Deuce’s comment that all writers are different, so she supports each one in different ways; by Natalie Sammons’ observation that if you write to please yourself, you won’t be disappointed ‘whatever the outcome’; and perhaps most of all by Frances Pinter’s description of Brexit in one punch-packing word: ‘frivolous’. Frances’ post was all about the importance of peace and how we should dread the danger of war that is looming once again; sadly, as we reach the end of this month, the conflict in Ukraine is no nearer to resolution than it was on 1st June.

CRM has given me some humbling opportunities to read or re-read some fine works of fiction: Snegurochka, by Judith Heneghan, and The Manningtree Witches, by A.K. Blakemore impress with their originality and fine use of language, but I have enjoyed all the novels that I have written about this month and am in awe of all their authors. In this, I include Annie, the only poet featured, whose stark poems about domestic violence bring home the enormity of it more vividly than any number of newspaper and court reports. I’d also like to pay tribute to those who have always supported me as a writer and continue to do so: Annika, Valerie, Noel, Dea and now, Hannah, please take a bow. I salute those who have dedicated their lives to supporting the bookselling and publishing industries: Richard, Nick, Lynette, Linda and, again, Frances and Noel. I’d love to be a member of Deirdre’s reading group – she and her book club friends seem to have such fun! And finally, I’d like to thank Betsy, Tara and Hannah for publishing The Canal Murders to the usual high Bloodhound standards; and I’d like to take the opportunity to apologise for (temporarily) having forgotten my own publication date!

As readers of this whole series of posts will know, I have been privileged to speak at four libraries during the course of the month. I have, of course, known for many years how much librarians bring to their communities, but when I met Helen, Kathryn, Tarina and Kay and their teams, their generosity, talent and tireless efforts to help people were brought home to me all over again. I’d like to thank them once more for their wonderful hospitality – and the equally wonderful audiences to whom they introduced me, each of which taught me far more than I felt I had to offer them. I now know about ran-tanning, the use of opium for Fenland agues and many more facts about life in Lincolnshire, both past and present, than when I started out. The library visits also gave me the opportunity to research some unsolved Lincolnshire murders, including that of Alas! Poor Bailey, my favourite. My encounter with the vicar of Long Sutton church will stay with me.

When I introduced this blog series, I promised to tell my readers at the end of it why I write about the Spalding of my childhood even though my novels are set in the present. I renew that promise now, but I hope you will allow me a short delay. It is because – as I mentioned earlier this week – I am currently on holiday in Orkney – in fact, sadly, my time here is drawing to an end; and while I am still able to imbibe the magic of this place I should like to introduce you to one of the island’s serial murderers – the great skua. Called “the pirate of the seas” or, in Orkney, “the bonxie”, this formidable bird – which appears not to be afraid of humans – hunts other birds on the wing. Today my husband and I watched spellbound as a pair of great skuas systematically chased a curlew through the soft blue skies and engaged above and around us in aerial combat with greater black-backed gulls. I came to Orkney for inspiration as a writer and I have found more here than I could ever have dreamed about.

As I prepare to return home and submit myself to the discipline of the keyboard once more, I should like to conclude by thanking everyone who has read even one of these posts. I do hope you have enjoyed them. There are more to come – I was surprised and grateful to have more offers from would-be contributors than there are days in the month of June. And of course I shall not forget my promise.

I leave you with a cheerful picture of one of Orkney’s denizens.

‘Tammie Norrie’ on Marwick Head, Orkney
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