Head of Zeus Ltd
‘Like a witch’s lair in a fairytale the ancient manor house crouches in its tangled garden. I can’t take my eyes off the ivy-choked window above the front door. It was from that window in 1913 that 16-year-old Maud Stearne watched her father set off down the steps with an ice-pick, a geological hammer – and murder in his heart. We’ve all heard of Edmund Stearne. We’ve marvelled at his works and shuddered at this crime. Why did he do it? Did he confide his secrets to a notebook? Why won’t his daughter reveal the truth? For more than 50 years Maud Stearne has lived the life of a recluse. I’m the first outsider who’s met her and been inside Wake’s End. What I’ve learned blows her father’s case wide open.’
I first came across the writing of Michelle Paver a couple of Christmases ago when I received ‘Thin Air’ as a present. I loved her ability to tell a ghost story but didn’t look into her previous titles nor anticipate any future ones. I received ‘Wakenhyrst’ last Christmas from a different relative and immediately looked forward to another enjoyable read. Paver is a British writer probably best known for her ‘Chronicles of Ancient Darkness’ childrens’ series. In my previous life working in a book shop, this series was always very popular with children themselves – always a good sign.
‘Wakenhyrst’ has all the ingredients of a fantastic gothic ghost story. Dilapidated manor – check. Seemingly bleak countryside – check. Overbearing yet distant father figure – check. Unexplained and horrific death – check. The story is set in the fens of East Anglia, and it is the mise-en-scene of the countryside that offsets the narrative perfectly. Paver frames the fens as a character in their own right, similar to the technique employed by Susan Hill in ‘The Woman in Black’, and in Bronte’s Wuthering Heights. The marshes are painted as mysterious, alluring, and treacherous. They are full of shrieks and slithering creatures and insipid ponds that teem with life. Whilst our protagonist, Maud, is at home in this wildness, her father sets himself against the wildness of the fen.
I enjoyed Paver’s eclectic way of telling her story. The narrative is advanced via newspaper articles, through journal entries, and using traditional third person. I found this a compelling mix, similar to that employed in Bram Stoker’s Dracula. In the early stages of the book it leaves the reader with real doubts as to which narrator (if any) is reliable. Paver also manages the tricky task of delineating the separate voices of her characters, even though some are related and thus likely to employ the same vernacular. The mystery of the death of a member of the household staff and an insidious descent into madness is slowly unwrapped through their mist-clad recollections and private musings.
Indeed, it is in the characters of Maud, our dour, plain-faced heroine, her father, the chauvinistic, self-centred and borderline-psychopathic Edmund Stearne, Ivy, the ambitious and voluptuous maid, and many others that we find the novel’s true strengths. With the exception of a fantastic antagonist in Maud’s father, I found myself rooting for and empathising with every character in the novel at some point. Each is well-developed, and Maud in particular still had the ability to not just surprise, but shock me three hundred- and fifty-pages in.
It would be a mistake to call this a slow burner, as the pages flew by for me. Nevertheless, Paver knows exactly how much to reveal at any one time. It is a wonderfully paced book, and I never got the sense that Paver was frontloading me with material specifically for the purpose of reveals later in the book. Five centuries’ worth of intrigue, witchcraft, and murder are beautifully paced, and I was held until the very end, fascinated to find out what drove Edmund Stearne to murder under the eaves of his manor in the damp fens.
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Matthew Richardson is a writer of short stories. His work has featured in Gold Dust magazine, Literally Stories, Near to the Knuckle, McStorytellers, Penny Shorts, Soft Cartel, Whatever Keeps the Lights On, and Shooter magazine. He is a PhD student at the University of Dundee, a lucky husband, and a proud father.
Not necessarily in that order.