I hope you’re all well. For me, I’m so grateful to see half term. Wow. I don’t think I’ve ever felt as exhausted as I do now. Working in a school through the pandemic is a challenge itself. I keep thinking I should write a book about it! Thankfully I’ve been reading plenty, ranging from fiction to non fiction. It’s the writing side of things that seems to have fallen away from me… I can only apologise for my absence. I’ve tried to keep in touch with you all but I know it’s been a while.
Now I’m on half term, it’s time to catch up with all those posts I should have written and comments I should have left to you beautiful people. I also want to make a few tweaks to my blog to keep it fresh and updated. It’s a work in progress I think!
Anyway, today’s post is a review of the book I chose for the October theme of my reading challenge: a spooky story that reflects the Halloween season. I went for The Familiars because I’ve seen so many positive comments and reviews, I just had to read it for myself! It really was a brilliant read. I picked it up yesterday morning and finished it last night. Here goes!
What’s it all about?
The novel is set over 400 years ago at the time of the great Pendle Witch Trials in Lancashire. We meet our heroine, the wonderfully named Fleetwood Shuttleworth. 17 years old, married to Richard, a nobleman of Gawthorpe Hall.
Fleetwood carries a burden, she is pregnant. Yet, she hasn’t had much luck with any of her previous pregnancies. Her duty is to bear her husband an heir. She has failed before, miscarriages and still births. Her value is intrinsically linked to a successful pregnancy, a baby may be worth her life in her husband’s eyes. She’s bordering obsessed with having a child, believing that that is all she is meant to do in life.
Fleetwood is desperate to be the mother Richard wants but she has read a doctor’s letter saying she will die if she gets pregnant again. Why hasn’t Richard told her? Does he want a child more than her wants her? Suffering with her pregnancy and plagued with doubts Fleetwood engages Alice, a young midwife that she met on their land. Alice is a mystery but becomes a very close friend to Fleetwood.
“Loyalty is earned, not demanded.”
Alice knows the uses of herbs and poultices which help Fleetwood and restore her health. But her learning and knowledge has the ring of witchcraft, of the ‘wise women’ who are now feared and reviled by the church and state. Roger, the magistrate and Richard’s mentor is leading the prosecution against the Pendle witches. Accused of cursing a peddler over some metal needles Roger has arrested Alizon Device and is using the testimony of a child, Jennet Device, to arrest others. Alice is implicated by Jennet and a warrant is issued for her arrest.
In a shock discovery Fleetwood finds out that Richard is keeping a mistress at her childhood home and that this lady is also pregnant. She feels sure that she is going to die in childbirth and be replaced. Part of her insecurities tell her she’s already been replaced anyway.
“If the Devil is poverty, and hunger, and grief, then yes, I think they know the Devil.”
She confronts Richard and leaves Gawthorpe Hall to go back to her mother. She takes Alice with her and calls her by another name to keep her safe from arrest. Fleetwood is sure that Alice can keep her alive and healthy throughout the pregnancy. The bond between the two ever tightening.
Eventually Richard persuades her to return to Gawthorpe Hall and she does so but on her arrival, Alice is arrested and taken to Lancaster Castle to be imprisoned. Fleetwood is devastated and begs Roger, as a family friend, as her friend, to relent and release Alice to her custody. Roger has no time for her pleas, he sees only his career and reputation at court. The prattling of a silly girl carries no weight and the life of her midwife, a commoner and a woman is beneath his concern.
“Alice Gray saved my life, not just once but many times. When I itched, she brought me plants to rub on my skin. When I was sick, she made me tinctures. She kept me company when I was at my lowest. She planted a garden for my health.’
‘Sounds like a witch to me, Richard said bitterly.”
The novel ends in such an unexpecting way that I really don’t want to ruin it. All I will say is both the female characters here are incredibly courageous. I was thrilled with the ending and the final chapter being five years later gave me the resolve I desperately wanted.
I didn’t expect to read this book in a day. I didn’t expect to open it and be transported back 400 years into a time of fictionalised history. Halls changed some details but the fact that this is real history intrigues me. I will absolutely be reading her next book, The Foundling. Oh, and how beautiful is the cover?!
With regard to the reading challenge, the focus for November is: Something that has been sat on your bookshelf / TBR list that casts a backwards glance. Come back to see what I’ve got planned for this.
Keep safe and well everyone.