The Manningtree Witches

Do not read The Manningtree Witches if you want a fast-paced thrilling read. Do not read if you are a man who will be offended by a book which castigates men. Clue, there is not one positive male role model. If you loved Hamnet then read on.

I listened to the audiobook because it was easily obtained by my library, normally I do not choose audiobooks. In this case it was the right choice because it forced me to listen intently. A word about the narrator. She was brilliant, really got the book and each character had a different voice. One quibble, I don’t know who chose estuary English for the Essex cast of characters, I’m guessing at the time they would have spoken a softer more Suffolk-like accent. However, the chosen accent brought out the poverty and working-class nature of the characters.

This book is a first novel by someone who is a poet and to me the whole book was poetry, the Ancient Mariner elegy kind of poetry. A story, based on a true story with characters drawn from history. It moves at a glacial pace, where every word is considered, where every description is like a painting. A young girl, Rebecca West, going about her business, living with a widowed mother and an elderly, disable neighbour whom she helps with cleaning. But the Civil War rages, people are poor and food is short. Things happen and superstition and gossip are rife. Resentments amongst neighbours easily boil over.

Rebecca is enamoured of the educated, John Eade, from whom she takes reading and scripture lessons. Her nineteen-year-old self quietly, demurely lusts after him. Her first love. But she dare not speak of it. She smoulders and simmers and it becomes apparent he does the same.

Matthew Hopkins has lately come to Manningtree from the university of Cambridge to take an inn. His hidden library consists of a stash of books about witchcraft. He is a misogynist, a celibate, odd, intense, God driven and a cult figure who will, within the following year, become The Witch Finder General developing his own method in determining who are witches. He is also quietly fascinated and disturbed by Rebecca West. The scene is set.

There are criticisms you will need to get over, says me who can be pernickety. The language used by Rebecca as she tells her story has the vocabulary of an English graduate. This author does not intend for the reader to have an easy ride. There are some places where the topography is in doubt and I am surprised a visit to the scene did not pick this up. Maybe it was written in lockdown. That said, this is an author to watch out for. If I had a paperback copy, which I now ought to buy, it would be shot through with underlinings of metaphors and cunning phrases. I have rarely been so astonished by a book.

About Rosemary Noble

Writer, author, amateur historian and traveller
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