Wakenhyrst by Michelle Paver
I’m delighted to be hosting the leg of the blogtour for Michelle Paver’s third adult novel on its publication day!
I read and really enjoyed Paver’s first two, both ghost stories reviewed here. 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 to the rarefied atmosphere up on high.
In Wakenhyrst, Paver has done something different, giving us a modern Gothic suspense thriller set in the Suffolk fens. The novel is book-ended by sections in the 1960s, but the main story is set in early Edwardian times in the early 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 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 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, 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 paintings 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. 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, is you feel as soon as it begins, probably doomed.
Maud loves nothing more to escape into the fens some times, 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. 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.
Wakenhyrst is a well-structured and suspenseful novel with a super heroine and a real sense of place, that I enjoyed very much.
Source: Review copy – thank you!
Michelle Paver, Wakenhyrst (Head of Zeus, April 2019) hardback, 304 pages. Buy at Amazon UK via affiliate link below: