WINNER OF THE DESMOND ELLIOTT PRIZE
Fear and destruction take root in a community of women when the Witchfinder General comes to town, in this dark and thrilling debut.
England, 1643. Parliament is battling the King; the war between the Roundheads and the Cavaliers rages. Puritanical fervour has gripped the nation, and the hot terror of damnation burns black in every shadow.
In Manningtree, depleted of men since the wars began, the women are left to their own devices. At the margins of this diminished community are those who are barely tolerated by the affluent villagers - the old, the poor, the unmarried, the sharp-tongued. Rebecca West, daughter of the formidable Beldam West, fatherless and husbandless, chafes against the drudgery of her days, livened only by her infatuation with the clerk John Edes. But then newcomer Matthew Hopkins takes over the Thorn Inn and begins to ask questions about the women of the margins. When a child falls ill with a fever and starts to rave about covens and pacts, the questions take on a bladed edge.
The Manningtree Witches plunges its readers into the fever and menace of the English witch trials, where suspicion, mistrust and betrayal ran amok as the power of men went unchecked and the integrity of women went undefended. It is a visceral, thrilling book that announces a bold new talent.
APPLE BOOKS REVIEW
It should come as no surprise that poet A.K. Blakemore’s fiction debut is a vivid, piercing and richly lyrical read. The Manningtree Witches centres on the real-life witch trials that took place in 1600s’ England during the Civil War, and transports us to Manningtree, Essex, a town where women have largely been left to live alone after their men were sent to war. When Matthew Hopkins—the famous witch hunter who christened himself the ‘Witchfinder General’—arrives in Manningtree, and a young boy falls ill with disturbing symptoms, all eyes land on the brilliant cast of layered, complex women at the heart of this searing read. This might not be the first novel to explore historic witch trials (readers might also enjoy Kiran Millwood Hargrave’s excellent 2020 adult debut The Mercies), but with The Manningtree Witches, A.K. Blakemore delivers a propulsive portrait of the power structures that led so many women to be accused—and executed. More than that, it gives the women of Manningtree a voice.
The inventive, sharp-witted debut from poet Blakemore (Humbert Summer) draws on the Puritan witch trials of Civil War England, when several women were executed for witchcraft in 1645 Manningtree. The book opens with 19-year-old Rebecca West's tour-de-force description of her heavily snoring mother, the vulgar but undeniably formidable Beldam (a name, Rebecca notes, that "suits her, because it sounds wide and wicked"). Claustrophobic Manningtree is abuzz with the arrival of Matthew Hopkins, a mysterious, moneyed gentleman from Suffolk who later becomes the self-styled "Witchfinder General." In lust with clerk John Edes, Rebecca barely notices Hopkins, but then a local boy becomes inexplicably ill, and the cause is determined to be "bewitchment," with Rebecca's mother fingered as a guilty party. The collective obsession with Satan begins to manifest in strange ways for Rebecca, permeating her dreams and waking life with explicitly sexual imagery as things progress with John and she herself comes under suspicion of witchcraft. While Blakemore's commitment to historical verisimilitude may have kept this from reaching greater imaginative heights (chapters are prefaced by excerpts from the primary source documents to which they correspond), the author is a devastatingly good prose stylist. On the whole, Blakemore's ambitious and fresh take on the era will delight readers.
An immensely readable, first person account of the fear and suspicion of witchcraft in a rural Essex town, circa 1650.