Review – The Witchfinder’s Sister, Beth Underdown

I’m in a little bit of a ‘witches phase’ at the moment. My first inkling of this was this wondrous bit of historical fiction The Witchfinder’s Sister from the pen of creative writing tutor Beth Underdown.

Goodreads Summary:

Before Salem, there was Manningtree. . . .
“This summer, my brother Matthew set himself to killing women, but without ever once breaking the law.”
Essex, England, 1645. With a heavy heart, Alice Hopkins returns to the small town she grew up in. Widowed, with child, and without prospects, she is forced to find refuge at the house of her younger brother, Matthew. In the five years she has been gone, the boy she knew has become a man of influence and wealth–but more has changed than merely his fortunes. Alice fears that even as the cruel burns of a childhood accident still mark his face, something terrible has scarred Matthew’s soul.
There is a new darkness in the town, too–frightened whispers are stirring in the streets, and Alice’s blood runs cold with dread when she discovers that Matthew is a ruthless hunter of suspected witches. Torn between devotion to her brother and horror at what he’s become, Alice is desperate to intervene–and deathly afraid of the consequences. But as Matthew’s reign of terror spreads, Alice must choose between her safety and her soul.
Alone and surrounded by suspicious eyes, Alice seeks out the fuel firing her brother’s brutal mission–and is drawn into the Hopkins family’s past. There she finds secrets nested within secrets: and at their heart, the poisonous truth. Only by putting her own life and liberty in peril can she defeat this darkest of evils–before more innocent women are forced to the gallows.
Inspired by the real-life story of notorious “Witchfinder General” Matthew Hopkins, Beth Underdown’s thrilling debut novel blends spellbinding history with harrowing storytelling for a truly haunting reading experience.

One of my favourite parts of reading this was when my fiancé leaned over and said ‘oooh Matthew Hopkins.’ We have quite different taste in books so it was cool to have found a bit of common ground (17th Century witch trials – who knew?)

Underdown manages to capture a 17th century voice in a wonderful way, she does so without making her writing inaccessible or overly dry. This is, in part, what draws you into the story and what makes you empathise with the character of Alice and her plight as the novel progresses.

Another thing I really enjoyed was the way that this book explores a segment of life that rarely gets pulled into focus. I would not describe it as ‘middle class’ but the fact is that this family is not overly wealthy but nor are they poor. So often in books set in this period you either read about the troubles of the richest of the rich or the lowest of the low. This was, for me, a welcome change.

I’ll confess, I knew very little of Matthew Hopkins and the Manningtree witches beforehand so I cannot say how historically accurate this book is. But from the author’s notes at the back it would seem that Underdown did her research before she set out writing, whether this paid off I cannot tell you, though the book does read as well informed and nothing seems overtly out of place.

The story itself is hugely compelling, in many ways it is age-old, the idea of fear and pettiness gradually turning people sour and corruption seeping through towns and cities. This is not a novel idea, particularly when it comes to explorations of witch trials, but the perspective of the sibling of the witchfinder, I felt, gave something new. Matthew Hopkins was not just a dark robed character stalking the streets haunting the poor women of Manningtree. We see him at his mealtimes, we have an insider view of his childhood, from one who experienced the same upbringing but did not turn out the same way. There was something vaguely reminiscent of We Need to Talk About Kevin there, though perhaps not quite so glaringly obvious?

If you’re interested in this period of history and you fancy viewing it through a new perspective this book is definitely worth picking up. If you’re here looking for a new fantasy novel, you may want to search elsewhere (if witches are up your alley you can have a look in my book reviews archive). But maybe give this a go as well, it’s an engaging, emotional and thought provoking read.

My rating: 4 stars

Check out my Want-to-Read Wednesdays post about this book (I was very very wrong)

Can you recommend anything else like this? I’m a little bit hooked. Let me know on twitter @judithcmoore or in the comments below!


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