Book Review: The Manningtree Witches by A.K. Blakemore

The Manningtree Witches – A. K. Blakemore (Catapult, 2021)

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.

15 thoughts on “Book Review: The Manningtree Witches by A.K. Blakemore”

  1. ive been hearing so much buzz about this book lately, especially from the UK! sad to see you didnt like it as much as youd hoped, but im glad you still found the author’s writing enjoyable 🙂

    1. It’s one of those books that I wouldn’t want to discourage anyone else from reading but it just wasn’t a knock-out for me. I think it will find its readership though!

  2. You’ve commented on a few plot points that are interesting, from the mother-daughter relationship, the poverty and squalor the women lived in and Rebecca’s feelings for the clerk. I’m interested enough to read this for those alone, sorry it didn’t live up to expectations but your review has intrigued me enough that I hope this book comes my way.

    1. I think it will still find a home with many other readers as there is a lot to appreciate here. Just not quite the right book for me. I hope you enjoy it if you get a chance to read it!

  3. The premise sounds interesting, though I think the intriguing hints that aren’t followed through would annoy me. We learnt about this period at school and I think we even did a comparative essay looking at witch hunts in the UK (well, England and Scotland) v the US, though I can’t remember much of it. The anti-witchcraft laws here weren’t done away with until some time in the 1950s, and people who claimed to be mediums or witches were sometimes still prosecuted into the 20th century, though from the 18th century onwards it became more about scamming people rather than any concern about actual witchcraft.

    1. Today, I learned something new! I never would have guessed that laws around witchcraft in the U.K. existed until the 1950s, though I’m not sure why I’m surprised. Just in 2013 Mississippi finally got rid of its laws about slavery. They didn’t have slaves, but there it was, still on the books.

    2. Technically, I think we had laws about witchcraft into the 21st century, because the law repealed in the 50s was replaced with something about fraudulent psychics and mediums. It was absorbed into EU legislation about fair trading when I was a teenager. So, I suppose, since it was EU law, it’s now legal to claim you are a witch and extract money from people on that basis – for the first time in about 400 years or so.

    3. So interesting! This made me curious about the history of witch hunts in Canada and apparently up until about 2018, it was illegal to pretend to practise witchcraft. So you could be an actual witch but not a fake one! Similarly, I think it was about keeping people from getting scammed.

  4. I think I enjoyed it rather more than you but I had some reservations too, mostly around anachronistic language and occasional forays into purple prose. I felt the passiveness was a deliberate choice, to show the powerlessness of women at that time, in that atmosphere of suspicion and accusation. However, as you say, I felt it showed she has talent, and I’ll be interested to see what she does in the future.

    1. You’re probably right about the passiveness. Rebecca would have had very few options and no personal history of autonomy. It just made for a less interesting read for me. I wonder if Blakemore will continue with historical fiction or something different for her next book.

  5. This sounds like a classic case of ‘historical fiction reminding us how lucky we are to be alive today!’! I find the physical descriptions of centuries ago can make me feel queasy sometimes LOL

    1. Some readers love that physical stuff but in general I know I’m squeamish! Reading books like this always makes me think of how I live a much cushier life than even the wealthiest people of that time.

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