Viking | 2017 (2 March) | 368p | Review copy | Buy the book
It is 1645 and England is torn apart by Civil War. But young woman Alice Hopkins has her own private suffering to endure. Alice’s husband Joseph has died unexpectedly and violently, leaving her alone in London, struggling with grief and poverty. When she discovers that she is pregnant, Alice realises she has little choice. She must return home to the small town of Manningtree in Essex and seek refuge in the house of her young brother, Matthew. They haven’t spoken for years but Alice hopes that she might find a welcome there, especially since their mother, just like her husband, is also so recently in her grave.
Mannigtree is not as Alice left it. The town is divided by superstition and fear, ruled over by a few rich and powerful men, led – Alice is surprised to discover – by none other than Matthew. Their mission is to seek out witches and, wherever they look they are bound to find guilt, for how could an elderly widow not confess to devil worship when tormented by the cruel methods of the witchfinder, Matthew Hopkins?
Alice finds herself caught in the middle of a situation almost impossible to escape. She loves her brother, she wants to heal him from whatever pain has changed him, but above all else she wants to help these women, particularly as Matthew searches closer and closer to home for his victims. And it is Alice’s story, told in her own words, that we hear in The Witchfinder’s Sister and it is an engrossing one. It is as if Alice has been thrown back into a distorted version of her past – she is reunited with friends and enemies that she knew as a girl, she relives memories of her time with her mother, father and brother, of her early days with her now dead husband, she wanders through familiar houses, rooms and streets. She must deal with grief, as well as the worry of carrying a fatherless child, but above all else she cannot escape the fear of Matthew. And there are moments in this novel when I felt afraid, too.
Matthew is a fascinating, dark character. Beth Underdown constructs his character perfectly from his weaknesses, failings and superstitions. He appears truly menacing and evil. But the author widens her picture to take a broader look at society during these troubled, lawless times in the mid 16th century and shows how dangerous a weapon power can be when placed in the hands of a weak man. Because it isn’t just Matthew Hopkins at fault here. And too many of the women we meet here have difficult lives, while some face tragic ends.
I thoroughly enjoyed the portrait of rural life in England’s eastern counties during the 1640s. There are plenty of the incidental details that I love in historical fiction, particularly here in regards to housekeeping, including clothing, furniture and possessions. But there is also an appealing timelessness and strangeness about The Witchfinder’s Sister‘s setting, which seems so cut off from the rest of England, including from the Civil War. Events here are not normal, even for the period, and we should be shocked by what happened. And this is, of course, based on a true story. Matthew Hopkins was a monster and through Alice’s eyes we see the devil revealed.
It’s not often that I read a book in one day, barely moving an inch, but that’s what happened with The Witchfinder’s Sister. This is a beautifully written, stunning debut novel from Beth Underdown, combining historical fiction with psychological thriller – the result is compelling and thrilling. Don’t miss it!