The Familiars – Stacey Halls

“The ghosts of things that never happened are worse than the ghosts of things that did.”― L.M. Montgomery

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I really enjoyed this book.

The old saying goes you should never judge a book by its cover, but I have to confess, that I often do – and it actually normally works out in my favour. I regularly pick up a book because I am drawn to the cover artwork – admittedly, I will always check out the blurb too, and if I like the sound of it as well I will normally buy. I’m sure there are books out there with beautiful covers and stinking interiors, but so far this method has worked fairly well for me. The Constant Nymph, The Elegance of the Hedgehog, and The Unforgotten all found their way onto my book shelf because I fell in love with their covers.

This is another one to add to the list. I was drawn to the striking full cover wrap, the slinky fox and personal artefacts hiding amongst moonlit trees. The ‘familiar’ title (I’m so sorry) let me know the subject matter would be up my street, and the blurb reinforced my decision to pop the book in my shopping basket.

The Familiars is an evocative, haunting tale, set upon the backdrop of seventeenth-century industrial Lancashire, and the loosely based on the folklore of the Pendle witches. The place time, and characters are real, though the story is one of Halls’ own – a tale of two women’s fight for freedom in an age of oppression, subjugation and superstition.

Fleetwood Shuttleworth is 17 years old, married, and pregnant for the fourth time. But as the mistress at Gawthorpe Hall, she still has no living child, and her husband Richard is anxious for an heir.

When Fleetwood finds a letter she isn’t supposed to read from the doctor who delivered her third stillbirth, she is dealt the crushing blow that she will not survive another pregnancy. Then she crosses paths by chance with Alice Gray, a young midwife. Alice promises to help her give birth to a healthy baby, and to prove the physician wrong.

There were two things I loved about this book.

Firstly, the despair – and I don’t mean this is a heartless way at all; I love to be moved by a book. Fleetwood’s anguish was palpable – her fear at losing her child, what this would mean to her as a wife, but also as a mother. The abject terror at having something so personal so utterly out of her control. Combined with this, is the creeping suspicion of her husband. What are his motives? What’s he trying to do? What is his aim? And finally, her utter helplessness when trying to save Alice.

I was anxious for Fleetwood –desperately trying to save her unborn child, and indeed herself, while fighting against the oppressive force of male privilege. Knowing that Alice awards her the best chance of survival and of giving her husband the heir he so desires, but being helpless to save her, bound by the chains of her sex. I felt connected to Fleetwood, a part of her emotions – angry, sad, afraid, anxious, with a final burst of release and acceptance.

I also loved the darker, more mysterious element which emerged through the backdrop of the Pendle Witch Trials. I was drawn into the pages by the secrets which didn’t ever fully emerge: the fleeting familiars in the woods, the oppressive walls of Malkin Tower, the waking nightmares, the unknown horrors in Alice’s prison cell. I like the fact that some questions were left unanswered. Real life is so often mysterious – and though Halls wrote the book to answer some of her own questions, there is much that is left unanswered. This is an open book, for interpretation by the reader.

I’ve been struggling a lot with reading recently, and this book was just what I needed to get myself moving again. It’s engaging, but also easy and enjoyable to read. I consumed the whole thing in a few short days between Christmas and New Year while nursing a particularly fierce head cold. It was refreshing, after a dismal 2019 spent struggling through books I felt I ought to read, to rediscover the delight of a really good book.

A New Year’s Resolution…

I used to pride myself in reviewing every single book I read. When I struggled to find the time to put pen to paper, because I was desperately and incessantly applying for new work, revising for exams, or otherwise indisposed, I diligently stacked all my previous reads aside, awaiting review, as it were.

It took me a long time to shake this habit and to recognise that it is okay to read a book and then put it away, that not everything needs reviewing. While I’m pleased I made this realisation, I can also recognise that recently I’ve gone entirely the other way, and have fallen horribly out of touch with my literary self.

Last year was a particularly bad year for my reading list – though a pretty good year in all other respects. Full time work, marriage, and new, not altogether bad, habits, have somewhat monopolised my diary. And while I still do make time for reading in the hour or so I spend in the bath of an evening – old habits die hard – I don’t ever take the time to share my thoughts anymore. 

In 2020, I’d like to make more of an effort to put my thoughts to paper. I’m not one for making grand resolutions that are impossible to stick to – one blog a week is never going to happen so I won’t even think of it. If I can manage one post a month, I’ll have done myself proud. I’ve also recognised the fact that my previous reviews were really long (seriously), so going forward, I am going to try to keep my thoughts to a minimum – concise, to the point, and hopefully worth the read. 

I’ll kick things off this month with an amazing book I found, and subsequently inhaled, over the Christmas period – The Familiars by Stacey Hall. 

Tbc…