Today I’m re-posting my review of the wonderfully Gothic Wakenhyrst by Michelle Paver, which is published in paperback today by Head of Zeus! I loved this novel when I read it earlier this year, and I love the new paperback cover!
Inspired by a series of real events and fuelled by secrets from her maternal past: from Michelle’s sighting of a murmuration of starlings on a Suffolk marsh; to the discovery of a battered copy of The Book of Margery Kempe by a 15th Century mystic; to the story of the Wenhaston Doom, a medieval painting of the Last Judgement; to the real-life story of Richard Dadd, the Victorian murderer and artist; this is Michelle Paver’s most evocative and personal masterpiece to date.
In Edwardian Suffolk, a manor house stands alone in a lost corner of the Fens; a glinting wilderness of water whose whispering reeds guard primeval secrets. Here, Maud grows up as a lonely child without a mother, ruled by her repressive and emotionally absent historian father.
When Maud’s father finds a painted medieval ‘Doom’ in a graveyard, an ancient evil is disturbed, and her battle begins. In a world steeped in witchcraft, legend and the even more nightmarish demons of her father’s past, Maud must find a way, not only to survive, but to fly free.
Wakenhyrst tells the story of Maud Sterne and her father, Edmund. We meet Maud in 1966 when she is 69 years old. Media and public interest in Maud and her father has been stirred up following the discovery of a number of paintings by Edmund during his time at Broadmoor Asylum. Maud has shut herself off from the world for the last 50 years, but eventually agrees to meet with a reporter to discuss her father’s art, and what happened at her family home of Wake’s End that resulted in Edmund’s confinement all those years ago. For this, the reader is taken back to the early twentieth century when Maud was a child. I felt that the dual timeline worked brilliantly. The novel spends very little time in the sixties, and yet it sets the scene nicely for Maud’s story, as well as allowing the reader to see the eventual outcome for various characters. It also works fantastically to highlight the change in attitudes in the fifty-year period.
Wakenhyrst is told predominantly from Maud’s recollection of events, although the reader also has access to Edmund’s personal diaries and notebooks. I loved this structure, as it allows the reader to see events from two different perspectives which aren’t always aligned. The reader learns that Edmund has Maud assisting him with his research – she believes that they are a team, and that she adds value to his work. His opinion of these events is somewhat less favourable. To him, she is a free assistant, competent at typing his notes, yet incapable of understanding the complexities of his research. How wrong he is! Not only does she understand it, but she is also able to add insight, if only he’d listen to her. It’s clear from early on in the novel that Edmund is a selfish, domineering individual. He holds outdated attitudes, particularly when it comes to a woman’s role and her worth. His treatment of his wife is appalling, and his demise couldn’t come quickly enough for me.
Maud, on the other hand, is a fantastic character. Fiercely intelligent, her father’s views cause him to underestimate her, and I loved the mischief that she gets up to, despite some of the trouble it causes. It was sad to read about Maud’s futile attempts to impress her father, and how this inevitability led to feelings of bitterness as she grew older and wiser. To be dismissed simply because of one’s chromosomes is frustrating, particularly when a boy with her intelligence would have been lauded. She has a lonely childhood, particularly after her mother’s death, but finds happiness in books and in the fens which border their property. Wary of the dangers, she develops a love of nature and the outdoors, and I think that she seemed more at peace in those settings than in the family home. It’s clear that her childhood was not happy or carefree, and yet there are moments of joy – particularly as she reminisces about Chatterpie and Clem – to be found.
Wakenhyrst is a fantastic novel with a palpable atmosphere. Edmund’s increasing paranoia and the mysteries presented make this a novel that you’ll want to read quickly to find out how it ends. It is a little different to both Dark Matter and Thin Air which I consider to be ghost stories, while this has more of a Gothic feel, and I loved the increasing suspense as the novel progressed.