I received an Advance Reading Copy of this book. All opinions are my own.
In 1643 in the small English town of Manningtree, Rebecca West is a young woman of limited resources. Fatherless, living with her mother, few prospects for the future. The bright spot in Rebecca’s life are the lessons she takes with a local clerk, John Edes, a man she has become infatuated with but knows is too refined for a girl like her. Rebecca’s life is small and squalid. But when Matthew Hopkins arrives in Manningtree, Rebecca’s entire future changes.
Based in historical fact, Matthew Hopkins really existed and was known as a Witch Hunter at this time period in England. I’m not a reader who is widely knowledgeable about this part of English history and I’m not a reader who is particularly interested in witch hunts or the historical stories that surround them. Most of the witch hunting stories I’ve come across have been set in the United States so I was curious to read about this aspect of English history and religion. I’ve sat on this review a little because while I found The Manningtree Witches engaging and an overall interesting read, I don’t know if I can say that I enjoyed it.
Rebecca is our narrator for most of the book but she isn’t a particularly interesting character. A lot of the action of the story happens to her; it isn’t until the final section of the novel that she truly takes charge of her own fate. She is lumped in with a group of women, particularly because of her mother, but never really pushes back against that grouping until someone tells her that she can. She’s very passive, especially in her relationship with John Edes (though I hesitate to call it a relationship). The relationship between Rebecca and her mother is another part of the novel that never felt fulfilled to me either. There are promising hints of the complicated nature of their mother-daughter relationship – what does closeness mean when you live in such poverty at this time? What does it mean to be a loving parent in a time when so many children die? The potential is there and Blakemore hints temptingly at it but takes too long to get there.
The book also has a heavy focus on the physicality of Rebecca’s world. This isn’t a bad thing and Blakemore certainly does a fantastic job at bringing to life the dirt and smells of daily life in the 17th century for these women. Overall, it left me with an uncomfortable impression of squalor and it left me with an unpleasant feeling but other readers may very well react differently.
This is Blakemore’s first novel and while it wasn’t a knock-out read for me, her talent is clear and I do look forward to reading more from her in the future.