“If the Devil is poverty, and hunger, and grief, then yes, I think they know the Devil.”
Before I begin this review, imagine the following scene.
A colleague who generally shares similar tastes to you in reading comes up to you and starts to rave about her current read. It is apparently wonderful, so heartbreaking, full of wonderful description. You ask her about it and she says “It’s set in the seventeenth century,” and you think back to your book which is also set in the seventeenth century, “and based on a real event,” as is yours, “and centres around a witchcraft trial,” which yours does. Obviously a conversation ensues. As your colleague raves, you wonder what it is that you missed in your book because whlist you were not hating it, it wasn’t anything like as good as your friend is saying.
Slowly it dawns on you.
Whilst you are talking about Stacey Halls’ The Familiars, she is talking about Kiran Millwood Hargraves’ The Mercies. Somehow it has taken you so long to realise this that it has become to embarrassing to admit it now…
Because this is possibly the problem I had with this book: it wasn’t The Mercies and did not have power, the bleakness, the vitality of that book despite – or perhaps emphasised by – its superficial similarities.
So where do we find ourselves with The Familiars? In the seventeenth century Lancashire in the company of the seventeen year old Fleetwood Shuttleworth, the mistress at Gawthorpe Hall and wife to Richard Shuttleworth – an historically real place and people. For those interested, it still exists and is here
Fleetwood is pregnant for the fourth time, having lost three children in miscarriage and stillbirth, and is clutching a letter from a doctor to her husband claiming that
if she finds herself once more in childbed, she will not survive it, and her earthly life will come to an end.
Coincidentally at this moment she comes across a girl whom she later learns to be Alice Gray and a midwife, and whom she employs in her desperation to give her husband an heir – and to survive motherhood. And Alice is Fleetwood’s link to the Pendle Witch Trials – again, a true historical event involving a real and historical Alice Gray and others – around which the novel revolves.
The hysteria and paranoia surrounding a witch trial has an obvious appeal: neighbour turned on neighbour, masculinity in conflict with the female, the privileged in conflict with working class tradition and superstition, the King and London in conflict with the provinces. All this should be utterly engaging…
And yet… and yet… the story itself fell flat for me.
And I think the reason is Fleetwood, our narrator. She is so weak and passive and lacks energy or agency! And I know that this is the condition of women in the world of the seventeenth century, and will be exacerbated by her youth – but I found her to be, bluntly, a rather tedious person in whose company to spend over 400 pages! Her position was one of privilege too, albeit with its own limitations of account of her gender, which made her insight into the world of Alice Gray and the alleged witches superficial at best and at times patronising – in a literal sense – and I did not quite feel the friendship between the two women they way that I think I was meant to.
The allegation of witchcraft – again historically based – was intriguing and full of haunting potential. John Law came across a young girl who cursed him after he refused to give her some pins, whereupon “a great thing like a black dog began attacking him, biting him all over, and he fell to the ground.” When he was taken to the local inn to recover, a few nights later he “woke to the sound of something breathing over him. The great beast was stood over his bed, the size of a wolf, with bared teeth and fiery eyes”. The girl – Alison Device – is arrested and detained at Roger Nowell’s home, providing evidence against the rest of her family and neighbours. A situation which did not seem to sit well wit Roger Nowell’s wife
This could have been a great story – a dark gothic narrative – but it happened, as so much does, offstage and all we hear are accounts – hearsay and gossip – filtered through Fleetwood’s narration of Nowell’s account to her. Perhaps Halls is exploring the unreliability of her narrators, making us question why Nowell is telling Fleetwood this, in this way, and how much Fleetwood fully comprehends, perhaps putting us in the same impossible position as a judge, weighing witnesses and never seeing the crucial events… but I didn’t feel that.
There are hints throughout that Fleetwood fits many of the characteristics of a witch – witches possess familiars and Fleetwood’s French mastiff Puck follows her everywhere; witches’ familiars drink their witches’ blood, and a few pages later, Puck is seen licking at the wound where Alice had bled her – but those never really went anywhere. And of course there are the foxes throughout the narrative which are very suggestive!
There are revelations made through the novel – particularly concerning the relationship between Shuttleworth and her husband – and it feels that there was very little resolution to be had there, very little progress. I found myself asking whether the Fleetwood on page 448 was markedly different from the Fleetwood of page 1, whether she had learned or grown, and I am not sure that she had. Not in any meaningful way.
And one last thing I shall mention that took me out of the narrative – and perhaps more than some because I happen to have owned and ridden horses – but as the climax of the novel approaches, as does Shuttleworth’s due date and the trial date, the sheer quantity of riding that that woman does in a heavily pregnant state did – I fear – beggar belief!
Again, a David Mitchell book is an event, and a thing of beauty! But the music industry is not my natural setting and again I was caught between this and another book – Daisy Jones and the Six in this case – and Daisy Jones was read first. This time, because it was nominated on a book club I was part of.
Bonus: The Lies of Locke Lamora, Scott Lynch
They say that the Thorn of Camorr can beat anyone in a fight. They say he steals from the rich and gives to the poor. They say he’s part man, part myth, and mostly street-corner rumor. And they are wrong on every count.
Only averagely tall, slender, and god-awful with a sword, Locke Lamora is the fabled Thorn, and the greatest weapons at his disposal are his wit and cunning. He steals from the rich – they’re the only ones worth stealing from – but the poor can go steal for themselves. What Locke cons, wheedles and tricks into his possession is strictly for him and his band of fellow con-artists and thieves: the Gentleman Bastards.
This one has been on my TBR for years. Literally years. I have heard nothing but praise for it, but so far have never quite got around to reading it! Go figure!
So, there we go: a range of books that I got in 2020 – save for the Scott Lynch – and do regret not reading during the year. Is regret the right word? Probably not to be honest: I do not regret the reading that I did do last year at all. But these are books that I would like to find time to catch up with this year – before prize season hits us again!
Pop in the comments below your thoughts on these – maybe let me know which I should read first!
Plot / Pace:
Page Count: 448
Date: 24th September 2019