Monday 2 March 2020

Twenty in '20: Wakenhyrst

I've read far less in recent years than I would like. To help remedy this, I've set myself the modest target of reading twenty books in 2020. When I finish one, a thumbnail review here will follow.

7/20: Wakenhyrst by Michelle Paver

The blurb: In Edwardian Suffolk, a manor house stands alone in a lost corner of the Fens: a glinting wilderness of water whose whispering reeds guard ancient secrets. Maud is a lonely child growing up without a mother, ruled by her repressive father.

When he finds a painted medieval devil in a graveyard, unhallowed forces are awakened.

Maud's battle has begun. She must survive a world haunted by witchcraft, the age-old legends of her beloved fen – and the even more nightmarish demons of her father's past.

Spanning five centuries, Wakenhyrst is a darkly gothic thriller about murderous obsession and one girl's longing to fly free by the bestselling author of Dark Matter and Thin Air. Wakenhyrst is an outstanding new piece of story-telling, a tale of mystery and imagination laced with terror. It is a masterwork in the modern gothic tradition that ranges from Mary Shelley and Bram Stoker to Neil Gaiman and Sarah Perry.

The review: regular readers of this blog will know that I am a big fan of Michelle Paver's work - indeed, I wrote (and raved) about her previous novel, Thin Air as part of last year's reading challenge. It's not just Paver's fluid prose style that makes me such an admirer - it's her ability to evoke a setting. I have quite a thing about "setting as character", both as a reader and an aspiring writer, and the setting for Wakenhyrst - the fens, and a remote fenland country house - is as much a character in this novel as any of the human protagonists.

It's no mean feat, particularly since Paver has to deal with two time periods, the early years of the Twentieth Century and the middle of the Sixteenth. And yet at no time does the setting, the cast of characters, their dialogue and the practices of the day feel anything other than entirely authentic. This is testament to Paver's research - she's clearly read a lot about the fens in those times, and this has informed everything she's written here.

Indeed, without giving spoilers, it is interesting to note that the genesis of this story came from Paver combining, and then extrapolating from, three real-life events (yes, the author's note at the end of the book is also worth a read).

As in Thin Air and Dark Matter before that, Paver uses isolation to great effect, to apply pressure on her heroine and reinforce feelings of the uncanny, of otherness. Wakenhyrst didn't scare me in the same way that Dark Matter did, but it did unsettle me, and that's almost better (or worse, depending on how much you appreciate being scared). And for a novel that deals in historical language and practices, this gallops along at a fair old pace. The reproduction of journal entries helps in this regard, I think. Either way, I found it hard to put down.

The bottom line: classic gothic suspense, in the truest sense of those words, with terrific setting, characterisation and pace. Recommended to all.

Since everything online is rated these days: ★★★★★☆


  1. Sounds excellent, I do like a good gothic horror. Nineteen in '19 and twenty in '20 is brilliant (and quite a precedent to set yourself for thirty years' time...)

    1. It is excellent, give it a go.

      God, if I'm still here in thirty years...

  2. This sounds right up my street. The fens are creepy all by themselves!

  3. Have to add this to the list because me and the other half both enjoyed her last two books.