Wakenhyrst by Michelle Paver (Review)

The reeds stood tall and dead: I had the oddest feeling they wanted me gone. The light was failing. I caught a swampy smell of decay. Behind me something rustled and I saw the reeds part for some unseen creature. I thought: No wonder Maud’s mad. All her life in a place like this?

I’ve been trying to read more of Waterstones’ book of the month picks, because they’ve yet to steer me wrong, so I picked up Michelle Paver’s Wakenhyrst and it completely suckered me in. I love gothic thrillers, and this had all the eerie earmarks of a true gothic story, mixed with a curious format that had me fascinated from the first page.

Rating: 5 stars!

Read me for the:

  • Gothic thriller about the descent into insanity
  • Unnerving atmosphere
  • Religion vs superstition
  • Edwardian folklore
  • Haunting imagery

The plot:

In 1906, Edmund Stearn runs his family with an iron grip. In the isolated Wake’s End, a manor house outside of Wakenhyrst and surrounded by the wilds of the Fen, Maud is particularly affected by her father’s tyrannical rule. After Maud’s mother dies in childbirth, Maud becomes more isolated before, until she discovers her father’s diary – a window to his innermost thoughts.

Whilst walking through the local church yard Edmund spots an eye in the undergrowth, part of a ‘doom’ painting of hell that has lived in the church for years. Edmund wants nothing to do with it, but it seems to want something with him. Keeping the windows shut can’t keep out the familiar smells of the Fen and late, late at night there’s something scrabbling around the house on little, scraping claws.

What did I think?

This book is eerie as hell. From page one, we know a gruesome murder took place at Wake’s End all those years ago, but what nobody knows is why. Maud’s father was arrested for it and has been held in an asylum since that day, where he’s been painting pictures of demons that have drawn public acclaim. When suspicion is shifted to Maud, she finally allows access to the journals that she has kept hidden and reveals the truth about her father and the horrors of her childhood. The narrative shifts between traditional prose and her father’s journal entries and it creates an incredibly interesting and spooky atmosphere. Between Maud and Edmund, the reader gets most of the information we need to start putting the story together but not all of it, and it’s in that tiny middle ground that Michelle Paver has created an intoxicating and claustrophobic sense of supernatural presence. As a reader my imagination was running wild and I was creating all kinds of crazy theories to explain what was happening, some of them perfectly logical and some of them entirely ridiculous. All of them dark.

Maud’s character was the most compelling part of this book. She’s brave and interesting, and utterly trapped in a society that devalues her because she’s ‘plain’ and odd and, of course, because she’s a woman. No matter how much proof she has that her father is dangerous, she’s dismissed and accused of attacking her father’s flawless reputation, and her mission to protect the beautiful wilds of the Fen get her cast as a witch. She knows she can’t control her father as he devolves into a madness she can’t comprehend, but she also knows she has no choice but to try.

As a piece of historical fiction, the storytelling in this novel is beautiful, if frustrating as hell to read. No wonder Maud was so perpetually frustrated by her limitations. She faces the misogyny every day in her own interactions, and in the loss of her mother after repeated miscarriages and still births left her weak – but Edmund ignored the doctor’s advice and chased his own sexual pleasure until it killed her. If it wasn’t the misogyny of Maud’s situation, it was the class inequalities faced by the characters living in Wakenhyrst, and the othering that occurred every time anyone strayed from the strict socially and religiously acceptable paths. Overall, it created a detailed and rich world as a backdrop to Maud’s horror story, and I was utterly enraptured from the first page to the last.


Add it on Goodreads here!

Buy at Waterstones or Amazon (not affiliated) and if you can, please support your local indie booksellers!

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