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.
The novel is gripping and provocative, throwing in visions and emotions that play with a more magical realist connection to religion and its spiritual embodiment in daily life, that feels true to the period and remains tethered to a modern sensibility despite greater emphasis on reason and science. We are still spooked by an albino hare standing in our path, its pale, red-rimmed eyes staring at us in the early dawn. Such encounters continue to raise the hair on our necks, making this modern retelling feel alarmingly contemporary. What is good? What is bad? Who controls the narrative of our experiences? Who stamps meaning on our actions and feelings? These remain critical questions as the avenues for gossip and spite grow.
A fun read with thought-provoking ideas beneath, this would be a perfect read for those who love a little gothic, religious horror that makes monsters of the witchfinders and the government men rather than the women whose poverty and single life make them dangerous outsiders in a society desperate to prove its propriety and deny its bestial roots. It’s out this March.
I’ll be reading Acts of Desperation by Megan Nolan next.