The Manningtree Witches is a fictionalised account of the puritanical witch trials that swept across England in the 1640s, during the English civil war. We follow Rebecca, who lives with her widowed, disreputable mother (the Bedlam West) in a small Essex town, when Matthew Hopkins (later to be known through history as the Witchfinder General) comes to stay and starts to ask questions about the marginalised women in the town.
I loved this novel. This is AK Blakemore’s debut novel, but she have previously released poetry collections – and you can tell. Her writing is beautiful, inventive and sharp – she has such a turn of phrase but it never becomes purple or dense and it is mellowed by wit and wryness running through the narration. It’s mainly told in first person but does switch to some third-person sections; I would usually not enjoy this sort of switching but she handles it really well. It did take me a chapter or two to get used to the writing style, which captures the language of the time – but once I adapted to it, I loved it!
Blakemore beautifully depicts the feeling of the time – the jealousies, the outrage, the fear that makes neighbour turn on neighbour. There is a claustrophobic, eerie feel to the novel, foreshadowing what is to come and setting you on edge throughout. It’s slightly uncomfortable at points, which is something I quite like in a novel. Blakemore doesn’t steer away from the dirtiness and the difficulty of the lives that some of these women lead – she puts a spotlight on it (some of the descriptions of Mother Clarke felt so real that I felt a bit sick).
Rebecca is an excellent protagonist – a keen observer, witty, entertaining. But we also see her terror and her powerlessness as events unfold. All of the women accused of being witches were excellently rendered – after all, Blakemore has made the decision here to focus on the persecuted, not the persecutor. But I was particularly impressed by Bedlam West, Rebecca’s mum, who I think may be the stand out character for me. She refuses to conform, she’s confrontational, she drinks too much and she’s bawdy. But that’s balanced by a tenderness, kindness and love, which comes out at different points across the novel and never failed to take my breath away/make me feel quite emotional.
Like all of the best historical fiction, Blakemore is also talking just as much about the modern day as she is about the 17th century (or, at least, that’s how I read it). The women that were hunted were those that did not conform to society’s expectations of what they should be as women, and so are hunted and persecuted and are accused of sleeping with the devil. It doesn’t take too much of a leap of logic to align this with today’s standards, where successful, powerful or unconventional women (including trans women) are torn down by the media just because they happen to be in the public eye.
I think I could talk about how amazing this book is for days and days, but I don’t want to give too much away, and I think it would just be easier if you read it for yourself to find out! This is a phenomenal story which gives life and humanity to the persecuted in the witch trials – Blakemore’s writing is beautiful and sharp, and her characters come alive. I will definitely be keeping an eye out for her next novel, and exploring her poetry in the meantime!