Thursday, April 6, 2017

The Witchfinder's Sister by Beth Underdown

Rating: WARTY!

This was an advance review copy for which I thank the publisher.

'A hanging' ought to be the collective noun for witches. It would remind us of what has happened to so many women who were not even witches. This book could have set that right at least a little, but in the end it was a disappointment. The very title is an issue since it's in the form of "The 's Sister/Daughter/Wife." I admit that such titles are provocative, but when you get right down to it, all they really achieve is the reduction of a woman to a mere male appendage of some kind, and it's appallingly insulting when you think about it. I think this is the last novel with such a title that I shall read, no matter how interesting the blurb might make it.

I think there was a story to be told here about a fictional sister of a real historical person, but the telling of it in this way did not work for me. Others might draw different conclusions, and in the interests of full disclosure, let me confess here (you don't even need to torture me!) that I am not a fan of first person voice stories at all. They're decidedly unrealistic and I cannot for the life of me understand why authors, particularly female and particularly in the YA genre, are so addicted to them.

I think it awfully sad that female authors are implying, by so dedicatedly employing this method, that women have so little confidence and feel so unheard in novels that they have to make their stories "all about me" just to get anyone to pay them any attention. As an avid reader, I certainly don't believe that and yet I've encountered very few first person voice novels that were satisfying. First person is far too self-centered, and it typically makes me dislike the narrator because it’s all, "Hey focus on me! See what I'm doing now! It's time for some more about me! Lookit me! It’s all about Meeee!" and I honestly cannot can't stand it, with very few exceptions.

Once in a while an author can carry it, but here it did not work. In terms of realism, it’s highly unlikely that a young girl growing up in a large family of boys, even one as relatively well-off as this one was, would be well-enough educated to be able to write, and especially not a story like this (which is supposed to be her diary or journal, but which reads nothing like one).

Girls did not get much of an education if any, not even in the nobility, and the Hopkins family was hardly nobility. It was deemed that an education would be harmful to a girl's marriage prospects, so it was neglected (beyond the basic housekeeping, sewing, etc.). Because of this, Alice's literacy was hard to swallow. It was inauthentic. On top of this, her voice did not suggest the mid-seventeenth century at all. The mentality was far too modern, and no one has that kind of recollection of events down to detailed conversations, so it just felt wrong from the start, and kept throwing me out of suspension of disbelief.

There's another problem with this voice and the author illustrates this one handsomely for us here. When you trap yourself in first person, your character has to be there and everywhere - otherwise how can she tell us what’s happening? Almost the only alternative to this is the info dump, where she learns what’s going on by having someone tell her in a story-halting binge, or where she reads something which feels so fake, because the only purpose it serves is to clue us in to what she's missed.

The equally clunky alternative to this is to have the character end-up in a position to listen in on something she's not meant to hear. Typically this is far too convenient or contrived, and it feels fake and thoroughly unnatural. In this case, at a meeting of men, we get Alice dragged in there for no good reason, and it felt so obvious and so fake that it really kicked me out of suspension of disbelief. Again. These kinds of men certainly would not want a woman in on their meetings. They had no use for women whatsoever.

Did Matthew Hopkins have a sister? It’s unlikely. His father had six children, but we know the names only of the four eldest. The author argues that at least one of the other two could have been a girl, and uses the lack of mention as evidence: since girls were not counted for anything back then other than as housekeepers and baby mills (an argument which, of course, undermines her entire sister story!). But if the two youngest had died, then they also would have merited no mention even had they been boys. It's unlikely in a family of six that all of them survived infancy in that era. Mortality was appalling.

But fine, if you want to say one was a girl, then let's go with that and ask how she got her name. The name 'Alice' for the main character is chosen for a reason, and it would be a spoiler to reveal it, but it doesn’t work. The Hopkins boys were all named after apostles, the other three (older) brothers being called James, John, and Thomas. Where then would this family come up with a non-Biblical name like Alice? It stands out like a sore thumb, and for me wasn't worth the ending which is too cute by far to be taken seriously.

For a story which promises witchcraft and horror, this one kills the thrills by moving achingly slowly, with rambling reminiscences and flashbacks. These are not to my taste at all. For me, all a flashback does is bring the story to a screeching halt, and I never appreciate that, especially not when it's a reminder that a writer seems to be trying to hit plot points and a story outline, rather than relate a realistic and organic tale of a person's experiences (fictional as they are) as they happened.

Flashbacks have such an amateur feel to them that they ruin suspension of disbelief. No one in real life sits lost in pages flashback or reminiscence (unless they're mentally ill) - not for as long as characters all-too-often do in such stories. It's an amateur conceit really ruined the pace for me. I took to skipping all the flashbacks because they contributed nothing to the story and actually impeded it as far as I could see.

It was a third of the way through the story before we ever got to what Hopkins was doing! Up until that point it was all about Alice, and she was not an appealing character at all. She was tedious, and in very short order, I had lost all interest in her and in what she was thinking or doing. For some reason she became obsessed with a list of witch's names and we had to go through that list over and over again. I took to skipping those passages, too, because they were simply annoying and led nowhere. I had read some reviews that said the story picked up around the halfway point, but I didn't find this to be the case. For me, it continued to be lackluster the entire length of the novel.

Of course not a one of these women was a witch, neither in the pagan sense nor in the absurd evil caster-of-spells sense. They were simply tragic victims of Hopkins's religious fanaticism, and the worst thing about this novel is that we got nothing of that from this story. Just as with his sister, Matthew was completely bland and unmemorable. He's presented as a simple, flat character who offers nothing original or entertaining. He has no emotional depth.

He ought to be a firebrand and a dynamo, but he's a limp rag, and it made for a boring story. He was larded with far too dramatic a past and it completely overshadowed his present whilst contributing nothing materially to it, so instead of an emotional story about the horrible slaying of scores of innocent women, we got a bland family melodrama, and I found it insulting to the memory of those women who were slaughtered on the altar of religious psychosis.

Matthew Hopkins was a real person about whom we know very little, and would probably know next-to-nothing were it not for the eighteen months or so when he became Britain's most prolific serial killer, hiding his vindictive blood-lust beneath the guise of a Christian witch-finder as he acted on the clear Biblical injunction, which fortunately everyone outside of Africa ignores today - of not suffering a witch to live.

He terrorized East Anglia - that butt rump of a bulge on Britain's south eastern shore - running from village to village, and being paid by the local parishes to cleanse their territory of witches. The Bible has a lot to answer for, doesn’t it? It’s the most execrable terrorist manifesto ever written, and we could have had all of this in this novel: the empty message of a god's unconditional love contrasted with the brutal Biblical injunctions to kill, slaughter and eradicate, but we got none of that. For me that was the saddest aspect of all.

On top if this there were portions of the story which seemed to start up dramatically, like an avocado pit on a plant pot, only to die inexplicably without going anywhere. There was a suggestion of the supernatural quite early in the book which never went anywhere, as though the author forgot about it, or had second thoughts. Alice's pregnancy (a left-over from her deceased husband) was an obsession for much of the start of the book and then it fizzled out. At one point I was starting to suspect that Matthew had had Alice's husband killed. I admit that if this suspicion turned out to be true, then I missed the revelation because I was, I confess, skimming the last forty percent of the novel just to get it over with.

As I said, so little is known of Hopkins's life that you can make up pretty much any story you want about him and get away with it. The saddest thing about this novel was not a hanging of witches, which ought to have been front and center, but of a tragically wasted opportunity - one squandered on unimportant trivia in the life of a fictional women when there were so many very real women, all of them murdered by Hopkins, who are begging to have their story told, and yet were denied that opportunity by this author. I cannot recommend this at novel all.