Sunday 26 February 2017

The Witchfinder's Sister by Beth Underdown

Published by Penguin on March 2, 2017

The Witchfinder’s Sister was one of my most anticipated books of 2017 ever since I first read about it on social media. I loved the sound of this book but once I’d finished reading it, I realised that I loved The Witchfinder’s Sister even more than I had expected. This is a storming, authentic and suspenseful historical thriller with atmospheric prose and a truly frightening villain who stays on your mind from the moment you first meet him. What’s better (or worse, I’m not sure) is that the villain is real, not fictional, and this had me obsessing over the story even more than I thought possible. Beth Underdown has written a masterful debut novel which has really set the standards high as far as any expectations for future books go.

Set in Manningtree, Essex, in the 1600s, we meet Alice who is returning there following the death of her husband. There she is reunited with her half-brother Matthew, who is not the person she once knew. Gone is the younger brother she used to look after. In his place is a cruel man who fills the people he meets with absolute fear and dread. He has far more power and a hold on people than she remembers, and rumours are spread about a book in which he is collecting women’s names. Women are being accused of witchcraft, something of a deadly accusation. The inspiration the author takes from the true story of the Witchfinder General as well as the way she recalls the superstitions that come with the witchcraft theory is done in riveting fashion and because of this, I didn’t dare put this book down once.

I found getting to know Matthew through the eyes of Alice was an absolutely fascinating experience. Matthew is a menacing character whose actions made me shudder, whose motives and thought-processes were often scary and vividly described by Beth. The way Matthew’s character is constructed is, from my own experience reading this book, astounding and unforgettable. Never have I been more enthralled by a character, one that I couldn’t stand yet found utterly compelling. As the layers of his evil character are gradually peeled away, I found the insight into Matthew more and more fascinating and my anticipation as to how the story would end for him was raised with every page.

I loved the style The Witchfinder’s Sister is written in. The prose is encapsulating of the era the book is set in and the writing is richly atmospheric, at times described with a raw and gritty shock factor that had me mesmerised. This is genuinely a book I haven’t been able to get off my mind since finishing it. The pace is well controlled by Beth and easy to become absorbed in. The story progresses at a highly addictive pace, not rushed, nor too slow, but with a perfect control over the tension which was increased when the moment was right. Despite the focus on this story being on the complex character of Matthew, I believe there’s much more to this book than an exploration into the mind of a messed-up character. The storytelling is brilliant, very memorable, and does the true-life story of the Witchfinder General justice.

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