The Manningtree Witches ventures into dark places, to be sure, but it carries a jewelled dagger. Blakemore is a poet, and readers given to underlining may find their pencils worn down to stubs. A black feather lying in the grass is “glossy and ideal”; a fall of sleet “rarefies into a silk mist”. Her women are fiercely alive and, in the Beldam’s case, often deliciously bawdy: “A man like that’d stick his thing up a haddock if a Bishop told him not to.” Such sharp wit and rich textures would be welcome in any setting, but here they form what seems a fitting tribute. The persecutors in this tale are given close scrutiny, but the book belongs to the persecuted. And on these pages, in all their ordinary glory, those women are at last allowed to live.
The Manningtree Witches is a deft, witty debut novel – a work of historical fiction that wears its research lightly. Its author AK Blakemore is a poet (her second full-length collection, Fondue, won the Ledbury Forte Poetry Prize in 2019), so the language is dazzling and precise, history always informing imagery: Hopkins dresses in “Bible-black”; tears fall like “seed-pearls”. But it’s the characters, alive and agile, that draw us in: amid the dust and gloom, we are right there with the witches, facing down the men who’d see them hanged for nothing.
It’s hard to think of any recent time when a historical novel about the persecution of women wouldn’t resonate painfully with current headlines, but AK Blakemore’s exceptionally accomplished debut feels especially pertinent now, as women’s protests against their treatment by men are met with further aggression or accusations of hysteria... But the novel’s shining quality is its language. Blakemore is an award-winning poet, and she is as precise in evoking the liminal landscape of the Stour estuary as the inside of a jail cell. She has created a style that feels at once modern and convincingly 17th century, where the occasional anachronism, rather than jarring, only adds to the sense of unease. We recognise these women – their desires, their fears and their anger – because, the novel seems to suggest, there is not so much that separates us from them after all.
The horrific story is told by Rebecca West, a resourceful, sharp oddity, whose observations are vivid and original. Alive to their hunger, hope, cackles of bawdiness and the bristling of old jealousies, she watches as this ordinariness is transformed to evil by Hopkins’ warped vision.
Set in the 17th century, Blakemore’s powerful debut is about a small Essex town during the Civil War which becomes the scene of a witch hunt. Poor, marginalised women are targeted by those determined to see the Devil’s work in chance misfortunes. Led by the so-called Witchfinder General, Matthew Hopkins, the persecution develops its own momentum. The narrator, Rebecca West, a young woman struggling to make sense of the world, is rapidly caught up in its web.