The Familiars by Stacey Halls
Now that the mini-holiday is over, I am back in full Autumn mode, even writing this post with an orange pen. It's playing havoc with my eyes. I had big plans for Halloween this year with my reading and was hoping to have a review for The Stand up as well by this point. But I had a few personal life bits that needed attention so that will be slightly delayed. But today I do have a little beauty of a book for you with Stacey Halls 'The Familiars'. It's perfect for Halloween and/or for a cosy Autumnal day when the rain is pouring down.
Set in 1612, Fleetwood Shuttleworth finds a letter addressed to her husband from her Doctor saying that if his wife were to fall pregnant again she would not survive. As Fleetwood is already pregnant and her husband is keen for an heir, she takes on the services of a midwife, Alice Gray, who helps Fleetwood navigate her tricky pregnancy. But then Alice is accused of witchcraft and is pulled into the Pendle Witch trials. As her due date approaches, Fleetwood is desperate to get back her beloved midwife and sets about trying to free her.
Where to start?! I'm going to start by doffing my cap at the cover art which has been designed beautifully and is almost like looking at a tapestry in a country house whilst the shadow of a hangman's noose can just be seen in a certain light. Beautiful.
Stacey Halls has clearly done her research into the local area and its people. Fleetwood and Richard are real people and Alice Gray was actually on trial for witchcraft. Stacey Hall manages to truly capture the feeling of suspicion and fanaticism of the witch hunters of the time.
Fleetwood is a strong determined heroine and very engaging. Alice Gray is an enigmatic character, her knowledge of herbs is first class and it is never actually answered of she is indeed a witch. Instead events are hinted at. A fox with the same amber eyes as Alice appears suddenly and always in unusual circumstances, a hawk is found dead slashed to pieces, a bowl of blood disappears. All adding to the troubling atmosphere of mistrust.
The use of these events and the strange fox manage to bring an otherworldliness to the novel. The other accused witches are a spectrum of downright terrifying with the ability to change form to genuinely innocent young women, accused because of a past grudge or in the fever of confession.
The other characters are equally fascinating. Richard, Fleetwood's husband is capricious and complex betraying Fleetwood and yet appearing as an anti-hero at the same time. Roger is obsessional about bringing the witches to trial and will stop at nothing to ensure this happens even betraying his closest friends in the process. His fanaticism and fierce ambition are a deadly combination and add to the oppressiveness of suspicion in the novel.
The most sinister character for me is young Jennet, the principal witness for the trials, staying with Roger as his young protégée until the trials are over. She silently haunts the house, lurking in corners and listening in on conversations. The servants and Roger's wife are scared of her, whilst she is scared of nothing, ghostly, waif-like and knowing. In my mind she becomes the most dangerous character of all.
There is something remarkable about Stacey Halls' writing. She somehow manages to make the air thick with suspicion, blood and heady, oppressive scents. I found myself looking for signs of witches in the novel, much as the people of the time must have done themselves. It's alarming. When bystanders do succumb it is exactly like watching the fever of accusation that exists in Arthur Miller's The Crucible.
I can already see this becoming a fast Autumn favourite. It's a fascinating look at a genuinely scary time in England's history. Well written, with engaging characters and a hint of magic. Brilliant read.