Review by Annabel, 12 November 2019
I read and really enjoyed Paver’s first two adult novels, both ghost stories. The first, Dark Matter was located in the Arctic, which was followed by Thin Air set in the Himalayas, and both were also set in the mid 1930s. Given their similar nature, I preferred Thin Air, which I had read first, particularly liking the contrast between the lush jungle at the base of the mountain and the rarefied atmosphere up on high. I know many readers who have read the pair the other way around preferred Dark Matter!
In Wakenhyrst, Paver has done something different, giving us a Gothic suspense thriller. The novel is book-ended by sections set later, in the 1960s, but the main story’s timeline is the early Edwardian period in the 1900s.
The opening section introduces us to Maud Stearne who has lived quietly for over fifty years at her family home at Wakenhyrst in the Suffolk fens. Her life is about to become less peaceful with the discovery of some paintings by her late father, the subject of a sensational article in a Sunday newspaper. The find has ignited the public need to know more about what Edmund Stearne did sixty years before. Only Maud knows the full details and she has never talked about the murder, but she needs money to repair her crumbling house, so decides to finally reveal the contents of her father’s journals to an interested professor.
We then go back sixty years to when Maud is nearly nine-years-old. Her French-born Maman is ill again:
Every year Maman got the same illness and it often ended in a baby. Her middle swelled so she couldn’t wear stays… Then came the terrible time the servants called the groaning, when Maman’s middle would burst and Maud would huddle in the nursery and stop her ears.
The best way for a groaning to end was with a bloody chamberpot, as that was soonest over. Second-best was a dead baby and worst was a live one, because Maman cried when it died – which it always did.
We’re instantly pushed into a tense family situation, and it is instantly horrific to remember that a married woman’s main purpose in life was to submit to her husband and bear children, again and again. Maud, a plain but clever girl, is largely forgotten by her parents. Her mother is subsumed in her own trauma, and her strongly religious father works in his study researching the life of a local wise woman from medieval times – it’s fair to say that he is obsessed by Alice Pyett. Maud is mostly left alone.
The hamlet of Wakenhyrst has an ancient church, St Guthlaf’s, which is full of scary carvings, grotesque little demons whose eyes will follow you if you let them. Edmund is rather obsessed by these too, and later when some medieval doom paintings of the last judgement that had been painted over are rediscovered in the church, like one of Hieronymous Bosch’s nightmares, his mind begins to become more and more unhinged, as his intense religiousity is challenged by these hellish visions and the psychological nightmares they awake. I loved the way that the medieval earthiness intruded into the Edwardian straight-laced times.
Paver alternates between the young Maud’s point of view and entries from her father’s journals, gradually building up the tension. Poor Maud has to become housekeeper when her mother dies, but her father has other uses for her too, recognising her cleverness that hadn’t needed formal schooling — such was a woman’s place in these times. He puts her to work transcribing his manuscript.
Wake End house has a roster of servants, including the scheming Ivy, who is ‘happy’ to let Edmund ‘vent’ his needs on her once Maud’s Maman died. Edmund sees nothing wrong in using the maid that way. Then there is Clem, the young gardener, and the tentative relationship that he and Maud start to build, which is, you feel as soon as it begins, probably doomed.
Maud loves nothing more to escape into the fens sometimes, and while for some, like her father, the fens are to be feared and he has a pathological hatred of eels, they are where she can feel free. I loved these sections where Paver describes the landscape and the nature in the fenland which is so inspiring to Maud, as is her love for the magpie she nurses back to health that graces the cover of Wakenhyrst (in the hardback). The fens in the sunshine are rather different to those in the rain or at night though. Similarly the fens generate dampness and humidity which exacerbate Edmund’s humours too – the wildness of the area really comes across.
Edmund’s journals tell a very different story though. As patriarch of the family, he believes that he is lord and master of all, but as his obsession with his research increases, his levels of superstition do too, possessing him and gradually driving him mad. We will find out eventually what he did, and Paver is superb at generating the slowburn suspense that builds up throughout the novel. This sense of Gothic horror really starts to take hold around halfway through. We know from the beginning that there will be shocks and awful things to come, repressed memories will resurface, but we spend a lot of time in young Maud’s company first, getting to know the heroine quite well.
Paver writes on her website that many things inspired this novel, not least the Wenhaston Doom, and the life of Richard Dadd, the Victorian artist – and murderer – who painted the Fairy Feller’s Master-Stroke in the mid-1800s; you can see the intricate painting at Tate Britain. The novel wears her research well. Wakenhyrst is a well-structured and suspenseful novel with a super heroine and a very real sense of place, that I enjoyed very much.
Annabel is one of the Shiny editors and blogs at AnnaBookBel too.
Michelle Paver, Wakenhyrst (Head of Zeus, 2019). 978-1788549561, 304pp., hardback.BUY at Blackwell’s via our affiliate link (free UK P&P)