Friday, March 8, 2019

Familiar Spirits

A late and short post today, due to the combination of a manuscript that had to get done (work, not novel-related) and the dreaded annual performance self-assessment, transferred to the Web this year for maximum inconvenience. I love almost every part of my job, but filling in meaningless forms is one element I can do without. It’s not as if the people I work with will fail to notice if I suddenly go AWOL and nothing gets done.

Still, I did have some fun this week—in addition to the manuscript, which was fascinating, and an interview with Joan Neuberger about her new book on Sergei Eisenstein’s Ivan the Terrible film trilogy, which should go up on New Books in Historical Fiction sometime next week or the week after.

On which, the Literary Hub put up a transcript of last week’s interview with Kate Quinn just yesterday, and you can find that here: . Wonderful picture of the Soviet women pilots who play such an important role in Quinn’s book.

 But the main point of today’s post is Stacey Halls’ new book, The Familiars, released on February 19. (The same day as Song of the Siren, as it happens.) It looks at what we might consider the British equivalent of the Salem Witch Trials, held in or near Pendle Hill in Lancashire, in 1612, and it asks a question to which anyone with a knowledge of Stalin’s show trials can relate: Why would someone confess to a crime that she knows will lead to her execution? Did the witches really believe in their own power? Did they just give in to outside pressure or despair at the certain knowledge that they could not expect acquittal? Were threats made against those they loved?

The story is told from the perspective of Fleetwood Shuttleworth, a historical character who although she has been married for several years (despite being only seventeen) and has started three pregnancies, has not given birth to a living child. Now she is pregnant again, and she comes across a letter from her doctor to her husband, warning him that this, her fourth pregnancy, will kill her.

Understandably distraught, Fleetwood runs from the house. In her own woods, she encounters a young woman named Alice Gray, a skilled midwife and herbalist who agrees to help Fleetwood birth her child without sacrificing her own life. But as accusations of witchcraft sweep up the local wise women and a friend of Fleetwood’s husband takes it as his mission to stamp out all potential witches in the area, Alice’s skill with plants brings her under suspicion.

As neighbors and family members turn against one another, the situation becomes ever more dangerous. Even Fleetwood’s relationship with her dog leaves her open to accusations of consorting with a “familiar”—a servant of the Devil in animal form. When Alice is arrested, Fleetwood fights to save her, but the odds are stacked against them. And as Fleetwood’s pregnancy develops, her already troubled marriage continues to disintegrate.

This beautifully written debut novel asks hard questions, but its style is fluid and compelling, its characters—especially Fleetwood and Alice—sympathetic with no trace of sentiment. Definitely a find.

My thanks to Shara Alexander of MIRA Books, who sent me a review copy of this novel with no obligation on me to post a review. As always, the opinions expressed here are entirely my own.

And to all my female readers, Happy International Women’s Day!

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