The Witchfinder’s Sister by Beth Underdown

I have read a couple of books about English witch trials, and the history of why they happened, so this book wasn’t entirely new ground for me – but is certainly an original take on the period the events. The Witchfinder’s Sister gives the infamous Matthew Hopkins a fictional sister in the form of Alice, our narrator. She has quite a strong narrative voice and I think you really get a sense of who she is and how she experiences things throughout the novel. For while the novel is about Matthew and his reign of terror, it is really about Alice and her side of the story.

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As Matthew’s sister Alice has an insight into his personality and some of his reasons for persecuting alleged witches with such fervour, and this exploration of their family psychology and history is well executed. Alice revisits several scenes from their childhood and adolescence, trying to get a clearer picture of Matthew’s state of mind and why he is behaving as he does. This was of looking at Matthew’s story, through the eyes of a fictional sister, was a bold choice, but author Beth Underdown creates a vivid picture throughout with excellent characterisation and imagery. I loved the way that she built up Alice’s character throughout the book and revealed more and more as time went on. We learn about Alice’s late husband, her several miscarriages, and her relationships with her parents, as well as with Matthew while they were growing up. These things all feed into her experiences in the novel, living with Matthew and feeling trapped by him, and dealing with past traumas.

One thing I particularly liked about The Witchfinder’s Sister is the depictions of the lives of the women – there is Alice, but also Matthew’s maid Grace and the cook, Mary, along with the women accused of witchcraft that appear sporadically. We see how easy it is for all these women to be persecuted in some way, both publicly and in the home, in small ways and big dramatic ways. We see how they are all trapped in some form, in ways that the men in the novel just aren’t. Matthew runs a strict household, exercising his power over the women. He is able to enact his warped sense of justice largely because he is a man and so people listen to him. His deep-seated resentments and opinions about women are a huge influence on his pursuit and persecution of alleged witches – and the men who agree with him allow these things to happen. Underdown also demonstrates how these attitudes and opinions get into the minds of women too, so that they believe that the accused really are witches, really are deserving of torture and horrific executions – and they do not fight back against false accusations and obvious injustice.

The Witchfinder’s Sister is a novel that explores a well-trodden path through new perspectives, shining a light on women’s experiences and the things that drive people to do terrible things. While imperfect it is still an excellent debut novel, and I thoroughly enjoyed it.

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Published in March 2017 by Viking, an imprint of Penguin UK. My copy was kindly provided by the publisher for review.

Purchase from Foyles, Blackwell’s, and Wordery.

Christmas and birthday haul: new year, new books!

Greeting all! I hope Christmas and the New Year have treated you well. So far 2016 for me has been my birthday, and then five days of being ill (today is day five…). So not the best start in the world. But, I am happy to start a new year and excited for what is to come. Christmas and New Year were lovely, and I was very pleased to receive a few books. I used to get loads for Christmas and my birthday, but now I actually don’t ask for many (as I have so many already!!) so luckily I now only get a few. So here they are:

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Suffice to say I am QUITE PLEASED. Witchfinders, The Blind Assassin, and the Witchfinder and Hellboy books were all on my wishlist, so I half expected those. The Silk Roads was from my boyfriend’s mum, always a fan of lovely new hardbacks, and I can’t wait to get stuck in – though I think I’ll only be able to read that one at home as it is so massive I don’t want to carry it around anywhere! Eat Pretty was from my cousin and looks like a great way to get started with a healthier diet (plus there are recipes for DIY beauty products, which look great). My sister bought me The Book of Strange New Things, which I’ve heard good things about, and I think is her way of trying to get me to read more sci-fi, which she loves. I’ve chosen it as my next read.

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I’ve also just finished reading Witchfinders, which I will write about soon.

Which books are you starting 2016 with?