The Witching Tide by Margaret Meyer: Haunting, harrowing and unflinching – book review –
But there is a ‘new terror’ sweeping across England in the autumn of 1645; a terror that had been hitherto unknown, safely distant and merely a rumour. But now the witchfinders have arrived and Martha, mute since birth, fears that her every misdeed and defect could render her not just ‘less than nothing’ but even worse... ‘monstrous.’
Prepare to have your senses assailed and your heartstrings pulled as exciting new talent Margaret Meyer brings us a literary debut novel exploring the Norfolk and Suffolk witch-hunts of 1645-7 in which over one hundred innocent women cruelly lost their lives.
Born in Canada, Meyer grew up in New Zealand and now lives in Norwich, and it is the landscape and history of this corner of her adopted country that has been the inspiration for a hard-hitting and exquisitely piquant story steeped in the superstition, fear and misogyny of mid-17th century England.
Set over the course of just a few weeks – weeks that forever change the people of the close-knit village of Cleftwater – The Witching Tide delivers powerful insights into the psychological impact of oppression, the fault lines that fatally beset friendships and loyalties, and the resistance to injustice that can arise in the most unexpected places... and people.
Martha Hallybread has lived for more than four decades in her beloved coastal village of Cleftwater. She has served her good and kindly master, Christopher ‘Kit’ Crozier, now married to pregnant Agnes, since he was a boy and is thankful that, despite her muteness, Kit has given her the dignity of work and a home.
Everyone in Cleftwater knows Martha for her help and healing but one morning, the peaceful atmosphere of Master Kit’s home is shattered by the sinister arrival of three local men who grab hold of the household’s bonny young cook Prissy and drag her away ‘like a heifer bound for the slaughterhouse.’
The witchfinder, Silas Makepeace, has been blazing a trail of destruction along the coast and now has Cleftwater in his sights. His arrival strikes fear into the heart of the community... within a day, women like Prissy are being captured and detained on spurious charges, setting in motion a ‘brutal, pitiless mechanism that would be neither stopped nor diverted.’
Martha – who fears for her own life because of her muteness, and her herbal and midwifery skills – is a silent witness to the hunt and, powerless to protest, she is enlisted to search the accused women for ‘devil’s marks.’
Caught between suspicion and betrayal, Martha must choose whether to protect herself or condemn Prissy and the other women of the village. In desperation, she ‘rouses’ a ‘poppet,’ a wax witching doll that she inherited from her late mother, in the hope that it will bring protection.
But the doll’s true powers – powers that her mother warned her should be handled with care – are unknown and Martha harbours a terrible secret that could cost her own freedom. The tide is turning, time is running out... and the gallows are looming.
Meyer’s beautifully wrought prose brings Martha’s perilous world to vivid and visceral life as the terrors of witchfinder Silas Makepeace slowly but surely gather pace and envelop the women and goodwives of Cleftwater in a brutal maelstrom of interrogation, torture and death.
Perceived blame for the vagaries of nature and illness – the coughing sickness that can’t be cured, dead hens, stillborn or disfigured babies, cows with ‘the bloat,’ winter storms, tragedies at sea – become a cause for female suspicion, leading to betrayal even among the best of friends.
And the fate of suspected witches lies solely in the hands of men... not just the alien witchfinder but the men of the village... the sons, husbands and brothers known to all and now caught up in a flurry of violent arrests, ‘uneasy with their task but fear making them needlessly aggressive.’
And trapped in the middle is Martha, her ‘silence’ empowering her to be a useful tool for the witchfinders, but also enabling her to take some control over the fate of the women... and thus endangering her own life.
Firmly entrenched in real history, The Witching Tide is inevitably an emotional and intensely immersive reading experience, and all set against the collision of superstition and religion, the folklore and intrinsic rural ways of 17th century English life, and the atmospheric tides and moods of the East Anglian coast.
Haunting, harrowing and unflinching, and yet moving in its portrayal of the extraordinary inner strength of persecuted women, Meyer’s impressive debut promises to be one of this year’s best literary novels.
(Phoenix, hardback, £16.99)