Review: The Manningtree Witches, by A.K. Blakemore
Mhmmmm - bit of a weird one, this. On the one hand, there were lots of things about this book and this story that I really, really liked, it just didn't quite add up into a fully cohesive whole.
First thing I really liked - the writing was gorgeous. Lush, lyrical, excellent metaphors, and fun little period details thrown in to keep my etymological nerd heart happy. The literary devices and tropes, the metaphors and callbacks and imagery, was subtle and carefully woven, so it got its point across without ever really smacking you over the head with it. The descriptions and the slight distance between the first-person narrator and the story itself reminded me a lot of Mantel's writing in the Wolf Hall trilogy, and I think that's what Blakemore was trying to imitate (she's a poet, too, so she's got a facility with words and the rhythm of a sentence that I quite frankly envy). I will just quickly flag, though - similarly to my feelings about this same trope in A Net for Small Fishes, the amount of misogyny sometimes evinced by the characters - yes, EVEN THOUGH I KNOW THAT IS HISTORICALLY ACCURATE - made it very hard for me to focus on the story properly because I was too busy rolling my eyes and muttering "Okay, mate, chill, you're scared of vaginas we get it".
The story was great - a harsh, compelling tale of the witch-burning craze in Essex (sidenote - what is it with Essex and witches? Discuss). Matthew Hopkins, Witchfinder General was a well-crafted, horrifically terrifying character; he was a clever, sanctimonious, righteous villain that toed the line between ridiculous and properly scary right until the very end of the novel. The narrator was perhaps a bit less well fleshed-out, which is unfortunate, because there were the makings of a very interesting character there - I think maybe a bit more time spent on her motivations and thought process rather than her reactions would have done that, but what do I know.
Which makes it all the more strange that something, something, was just a bit off. My interest in this novel was never more than academic; I really admired the writing and the story-telling acumen, but it felt like A.K. Blakemore felt detached from her own characters and story, and that detachment was multiplied when the reader couldn't fully inhabit the story and the spaces between the novel's characters. I couldn't get invested, and so while I appreciated the acumen and the skill that went into the technical crafting of this novel, I'm not sure it's a story I'm going to be thinking about much beyond when I put the book down for the last time.
Ultimately, this was a novel full of promise and potential, and it just doesn't quite stick the landing. My appreciation of the writing was enough that I'll give her next novel a try, though - and I do love a historical fiction novel that's written by an author who went and actually checked the historical record.