WAKENHYRST by Michelle Paver

Wake’s End is a rambling manor house located in the depths of the Suffolk Fens. The year is 1906, and young Maud Stearn is trying to find her way in a household ruled by her puritanical and disciplinarian father, Edmund, following the sudden death of her mother during childbirth. The countryside surrounding the house is her refuge, that and her love of reading, and Maud becomes concerned by the increasingly bizarre behaviour of her father. It appears he is being haunted by weird apparitions at night, and claims to have seen fleeting glimpses of things around the lake. The house is infused with a stench of rotting marsh weed, which permeates the very fabric of the building, and at night the sound of scratching – like claws on the wooden floor – can be heard…

I’d read two of Paver’s previous novels, Dark Matter and Thin Air, and thought them wonderful examples of genuinely creepy historical fiction. When I heard about her latest novel, Wakenhyrst, being published, the synopsis was enough to whet the appetite, especially given the bleak Suffolk location and the hints of murder and madness.

Firstly, the prose is absolutely beautiful, evoking a rich atmospheric sense of time and place. We know from the start that something horribly tragic has occurred at Wake’s End, and the opening section (set in the 1960s) propels the rest of the narrative with a real sense of mystery. The timeline then jumps backwards to the start of the 20th century to begin to show us the events leading up to the catastrophic moment. Maud herself is a superb character, headstrong and independent, yet fearful of her tyrannical father, Edmund. Following his wife’s death (to which he shows little sorrow) he begins a steady descent into madness, following his uncovering of a religious painting at the local church.

I really enjoyed this novel. It works on several different levels, both as a historical depiction of life in rural Suffolk – complete with a pervading aura of myths and legends of the area, including water spirits, spectral hounds and tales of witchcraft – and also as an unsettling ghost story, replete with a long-hidden family secret and echoes from past misdemeanours. The book pulls no punches in its plot – for a writer who also publishes YA fiction, this one features suggestions of sexual impropriety, murder, madness and possible retribution from beyond the grave. The final section takes us back up to the 1960s and adds a nice counterbalance to the opening section.

If you enjoy a historical tale or just a ghost story I think you’d enjoy this novel. Paver’s writing is lyrical and yet fluid; it’s not bogged down by being written in a particular style to evoke the early 20th century timeframe. It’s genuinely creepy at times – albeit not as unnerving as either Dark Matter or Thin Air – but for the most part it makes for a very interesting read. I have no hesitation in recommending this.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

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