The Manningtree Witches by A. K. Blakemore

Witches and the history of social attitudes to evil fascinate me so I was immediately drawn to The Manningtree Witches, an exploration of the female stories behind the witches discovered, imprisoned and put to trial by the Witchfinder General during the English Civil War. 

The book retells the story of these so-called witches through the historical character of Rebecca West, whose confession appears in modern English in the text. Nothing about this retelling disappoints. The suppressed desires of the puritans, the overarching power of the patriarchy, and the sense of poverty – both material and educational – make the complex unravelling of the possible workings of the devil salacious material pertinent to a modern world of fake news and self-appointed spokespeople. 

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Whereabouts by Jhumpa Lahiri

Reading Whereabouts felt very much like opening the pages of a slightly seachanged Dorthe Nors. A woman both at home and out of place watches the ease and discomforts of others’ lives as if she herself is untouched and yet every day, every moment is an exercise in overcoming disappointment. She does not have the perfect job, or a partner. She has never lived anywhere else. She remains the loyal friend whose passion is somehow never fully engaged. She has freedom but does not use it.

The writing is elegant, quietly sharp. Its blade has slipped between your skin before you even notice.

For some reason, for me, the overwhelming image left by the book is a small shrine to a dead son, pressed against a wall half way up a hillside. A road snakes up past the path and it is along this path that she occasionally bumps into a man she finds attractive who is married to a friend of hers. A crackle of desire hums between them but is never explored. The shrine stands for all she has lost without ever having had it to begin with. She hovers, for me, at the side of that road, on that hill, near the wall, neither fully up or nor down, watching a potential lover walk past her for the sake of propriety, for fear of consequence.

It’s a beautiful, meditative piece of writing that so carefully expresses what it can be to be a woman of a certain age without her own family, still somehow unrooted to the world around her, living anywhereabouts. Out in April this year, put it in your wish list.

I’ll be reading The Manningtree Witches by A. K. Blakemore next.

Luckenbooth by Jenni Fagan

Luckenbooth is a striking novel spanning 100 years in a tenement building in Edinburgh. Weaving stories across and between flats, decades, people and ghosts, we watch the devil’s daughter move in but it is many years before she finally walks out.

The slippery stream of reality is a glorious riot of genre, as each section brings new characters whose lives present new styles, new modes of expression, and from the moment the devil’s daughter sails to Edinburgh in a coffin, her father’s dead eyes watching her from a crack in the rock where his body was thrown rather than buried, we know we’re on a ride that could take us through many planes of existence. It’s a thoroughly joyous, depressing, enlightened read that seeringly burns a host of Edinburgh’s people onto a reader’s mind. The writing is rich, inspired and inspiring.

I particularly loved the chapters from William Burroughs, who lives in the building for a while, on holiday from America. He voices the powerful magic of words that time travel and the miraculous intimacy and philosophical complexity we all love without divorcing thought from the messy sensations of living. And it is this mixture of down to earth with philosophy, murder with spirits, magical real with mental illness, that makes the novel so startlingly its own.

Life: A User’s Manual for Edinburgh, Luckenbooth is a fabulous book that should definitely hit the prize lists this year. I loved it and find images, sensations and ideas evoked by its pages, occupying my mind long after I’ve finished reading it. Definitely go and buy this one, now!

I’ll be reviewing Whereabouts by Jhumpa Lahiri next.

Nightshift by Kiare Ladner

A summary of this fabulous debut from Kiare Ladner doesn’t do justice to the deeper themes that resonate beneath its surface. Meggie, a twenty-three-year-old woman living in London, leaves a stable life and relationship in pursuit of a woman whose behaviour, appearance and attitudes attract and fascinate her.

Meggie is worried about being staid, about following the trajectory middle-class life lays out of university, job, marriage, children, retirement, death, and ultimately missing something more. She wants something against which she is forced to react, to change, something for which she has to risk, to stretch the limits of standard expectations. 

Sabine is a reflection of all the things she desires. When Meggie meets her in her day job, a job she does solely to support her studies, she is immediately drawn to Sabine. She wants to be friends with this interesting woman, clearly so much cooler and more edgy than Meggie feels. So when Sabine leaves to take on a night shift at the same company, Meggie is sure she’ll be able to balance her life and studies better if she too, follows Sabine into a nocturnal lifestyle of shift work that gives you periods of night work against weeks free of any work at all.

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