Wakenhyrst by Michelle Paver

Image result for wakenhyrstMichelle Paver's Dark Matter and Thin Air are two of my favourite ghost stories, so I was particularly excited to read Wakenhyrst, a claustrophobic piece of rural gothic set in the flat, damp murk of the Suffolk Fens. At the start of the book, it's the 1960s and an elderly woman, Maud Stearne, is living alone at Wake's End, a fenland manor house near the isolated village of Wakenhyrst. Maud is the daughter of Edmund Stearne, who, back in the Edwardian era when Maud was still a girl, was sent to Broadmoor after murdering a young man in a horrific, entirely unprovoked frenzy and subsequently became known for the apocalyptic paintings he produced while locked up there. Keen to write a book about what happened at Wake's End, an academic visits the mysterious Maud in the hope of persuading her to tell her story.

That story, which forms the rest of the book, is a strange and absorbing one. The landscape and wildlife of the fens - sometimes beautiful, sometimes sinister - are richly described in every detail. Maud adores the fen on the family's land, fascinated by its birds, animals and insects and befriending the mysterious Jubal Rede, a hermit-like outcast who survives there. Father, meanwhile, detests it. Surely a man like Father - an almost puritanical Protestant and a classical scholar - can't believe the locals' tales of the imp-like demons and spirits that live there. Does he simply abhor anything that's wild and untamed? Or does the fen have other, darker associations for him? And how might it be connected with the Wakenhyrst Doom, the mediaeval painting of the Last Judgement which has just been accidentally uncovered at the local church?

At the heart of the story throughout, Maud is a pleasingly complex character and it's fascinating to watch her naivety fall away and her heart harden as she comes to realise the truth about her father and to understand more fully the misogyny at the root of women's place in Edwardian society. As for the other characters, we see them only through eyes of Maud and in the pages of Father's diary, so it's left to us to try and imagine them without those filters. Is Ivy the maid really as mercenary as Maud believes her to be and as lascivious as Father's depiction of her? Or is she simply seeking a route out of her desperate poverty in the only way, after a life of abuse, she knows how?

You can feel the tensions and frustrations of the stifling rigidity of the Stearnes' family life that imposed by Father throughout this book. Father's control over his Belgian wife, Maud's adored Maman, is particularly chilling and there's a horrible inevitability to her fate. Maman is almost permanently pregnant, suffering miscarriages and stillbirths at least once a year which sap her mental and physical strength, but any suggestion by the doctor to Father that contraceptive methods or even just self-control ('Perhaps not every night, eh?') might save her is met with a dismissive disdain that tells us, and Maud, everything we need to know about Father's attitude to women, and the underlying hypocrisy of his religious views, which can apparently be readily bent to allow him his own pleasures, but not to allow Maman to keep mementos of her own dead children, a practice Father deems too much like Catholic idolatry.

Folklore and superstitions run through this book, with the village people, including the Wake's End servants, imbuing almost every act and object with significance and ritual. Magpies are bad omens because their pied feathers suggest they didn't wear mourning for Christ. Women mustn't wash while menstruating. Toads are devils in disguise. Superstition is just as oppressive as organised religion seems to be here, a source of constant fear and anxiety that drives people to pointless cruelty. There's also just enough ambiguity about Father's madness for even Maud, and us as readers, not to be immune to the suggestion that there's something of the supernatural about Wake's End.

While I didn't find this book frightening, exactly, it's extremely atmospheric and has a strong sense of the past not just haunting but defining the present. It's not a fast-paced story, but it shouldn't be - if it were, it would jar with the notion of time passing slowly with the seasons, and with the boredom and loneliness which shape Maud's character and interests. While this isn't a terrifying chiller like Paver's ghost stories, this beautifully written Edwardian folk horror tale gripped me from the very start.

I was given a free proof copy of Wakenhyrst to review. The publisher did not request that the review be a positive one and I wasn't paid for this post.