Wakenhyrst by Michelle Paver

I would like to thank Head of Zeus for an advance copy of this novel in exchange for a fair and honest review

Publisher – Head of Zeus

Published – Out Now

Price - £14.99 hardback

Something has been let loose

In Edwardian Suffolk, a manor house stands alone in a lost corner of the fens, a glinting wilderness of water whose whispering reeds guard ancient secrets. Maud is a lonely child growing up without a mother, ruled by her repressive father.

When he finds a painted medieval devil in a graveyard, unhallowed forces are awakened.

Maud’s battle has begun. She must survive a world haunted by witchcraft, the age-old legends of her beloved fen and the even more nightmarish demons of her father’s past.

One of the most truly terrifying parts of growing up is the discovery that our world isn’t what we think it is. Our perception of our parents and our initial beliefs will be challenged and changed as we understand the world better and our place in it. In this excellent gothic thriller Michelle Paver gives us a study of a family at the turn of the 20th century that brings me one of my most haunting and at times terrifying reads to date.

By late the late 1960’s Edmund Stearne has an infamous reputation a rich gentlemen historian who one day went mad; killed a stranger with a hammer and spent the rest of his life in an asylum creating three notoriously eerie but incredibly popular pieces of art. His daughter Maud now elderly sits in the family home alone refusing to give her side of the story. But after a salacious article attempting to blame Maud for the crime (and a need for cash to repair the home) then Maud decides to finally tell a young journalist what happened. Maud recounts her life growing up in a strict religious household; ruled by a man who has no time for women and what becomes a battle for independence; revenge and heartache. All taking place in a mysterious part of the world where the old legends of the fen are still being feared by the locals.

Maud and her father are the absolute lynchpins of the book. We start off very much seeing the world though Maud’s eyes.  She is smart, fascinated by nature and reading and keen to understand the world better. At first immensely in need of her father’s approval. The book then at times gives you Edmund’s own thoughts from his diary. One of the first pieces of horror in this tale is that he clearly has little actual love for his daughter or wife they are possessions and his appalling attitude to women is a theme explored throughout the book. Maud is demoted in his eyes by virtue of her sex and he even is repulsed by her looks and eczema. When Maud reads this section of the diary that realisation sets a scene for a wider battle of wills over the next few years.

Maud is clearly embedded in a culture of a time when women are seen and not heard and all the men of power in the novel dismiss her as not worth her time.  This underestimation of her capabilities though allows her to further investigate and test her father’s reaction to events after a medieval picture is found and its links to an ancient legend. He appears to be being reminded of his past and leads to both someone lashing out at his family and staff but and the diary entry makes clear he is increasingly fearful of something haunting him out of the corner of his eye. Maud however is growing up and seeing the wilder world of the fen and those who live on it including a young gardener to get out of that stifling society. Maud’s obvious strengths and her containment by this awful society make her a compelling lead character to follow and watching her battle these restrictions is fascinating. In contrast to Maud we also get Ivy a working-class girl where the men seem much happier that she can show sexuality while the middle-class women are to be always silent and demure. I loved how Paver highlights the contradiction in these Edwardian men preaching religious morality while indulging their own desires once doors are closed and feeling no sense of hypocrisy.

This is firmly a gothic thriller and there is a unique atmosphere here as the Fen and the village are set up as this wilder force that appears to be reacting to Maud’s pleas to be rescued from her father’s grip. A medieval painting seems to be triggering something almost supernatural preying at the family.  Nothing in this novel is made explicitly rational it is all down to reader’s interpretation, but it’s all made alive by Paver’s language from magpies flying into the house to a demon on a wall who is staring accusingly at you and seeing all your sins. Making the fen such a character really helps build that escalating tension in this battle between Maud and her father so that in its final few chapters as we reach the event that made Edmund Stearne infamous, I found reading some of these chapters both terrifying and heart-breaking. Evets are set in course and now no one can stop them.

I think this was a hugely successful novel and was thoroughly immersed into this startling family and the world they lived in. If you enjoy historical novels, gothic thrillers and that teasing hint of something lurking behind the veil pulling strings then this novel is one I think you should be rushing to pick up.