The Familiars by Stacey Halls - book review: Brimming with tension, menace, mystery and emotion
After three failed pregnancies, the infant she carries in her womb could well be the son and heir that her husband longs for but a letter from her doctor – which she discovered only by accident – has revealed that she will not survive another pregnancy.
Stacey Halls, who grew up in Rossendale and studied journalism at the University of Central Lancashire in Preston, looks to her own Lancashire roots for a rich and enthralling tale of suspicion, betrayal and female friendship, all intricately woven around the notorious Pendle witch trials.
Hailed as the biggest debut fiction launch of 2019, The Familiars is a feminist tour-de-force, spiced with frissons of supernatural, brimming with local history, and opening up a fascinating female perspective on the plight of the women who faced degradation and death in a dark corner of Lancaster Castle.
Halls, who writes with both emotion and historical insight, has based her highly-charged story on Gawthorpe Hall, an Elizabethan country house which stands on the banks of the River Calder near Burnley, and a fictional friendship between the real lady of the manor, Fleetwood Shuttleworth, and Alice Gray, one of the women arrested in 1612 on charges of witchcraft.
In her well researched novel, Halls sweeps us away to the febrile atmosphere of 17th century England where a paranoid King James I has set in motion a nationwide witch-hunt which will see dozens of innocent women tried and hanged.
After four years of marriage and three failed pregnancies, 17-year-old Fleetwood Shuttleworth, the mistress of Gawthorpe Hall, is desperate to produce a living baby. In anticipation of each unborn child, her husband Richard bought her a gift but to Fleetwood, they now represent only ‘a token of my failure.’
Pregnant again in 1612, Fleetwood finds a letter from the doctor who delivered her third stillbirth but she is dealt the crushing blow that she will not survive another pregnancy. Just as painful is the realisation that her husband had never told her of the doctor’s warning and now the baby is ‘fattening like a conker in a spiked green shell, and would eventually split her open.’
Eager to find a ‘wise woman’ to help her, Fleetwood crosses paths by chance with Alice Gray, a young midwife from nearby Colne. Quiet, withdrawn but fiercely proud, Alice promises to help her give birth to a healthy baby, and soon the two women have struck up a close, empowering friendship.
But rumours of witchcraft are sweeping this area of Lancashire – a place of rolling hills, shadowy forests and ‘strange people’ – and when a local pedlar is struck down with a seizure shortly after being cursed by a young girl with a terrifying ‘familiar spirit,’ Alice is drawn into the accusations.
Locked up with a group of women awaiting trial at the summer assizes at Lancaster Castle, Alice looks certain to hang if she is found guilty of witchcraft. Fleetwood, who knows that she ‘may as well have a rope tied too,’ risks everything by trying to help her.
But is there more to Alice than meets the eye, and how well does she really know her? Soon the two women’s lives will become inextricably bound together as the legendary trial at Lancaster approaches, and Fleetwood’s stomach continues to grow...
The brooding presence of Pendle Hill casts a long shadow as we journey with two young women from very different social classes but whose freedom and survival are equally compromised by the constraints of a patriarchal society which regards women’s healing ‘arts’ as black magic.
As their lives intertwine and time starts to run out for them both, Fleetwood and Alice find that their strength lies in mutual support, a conspiracy of sisterhood which means risking all in the hope of escaping death.
Halls’ atmospheric and richly detailed story brings both the landscape and history to life; this is a compelling portrait of not just one of the darkest and most disturbing events in Lancashire’s past but a reminder of the powerlessness of women to mark out their own destinies… and even their own bodies.
‘Women carried life and death in their stomachs when they conceived; it was a fact of our existence,’ muses Fleetwood.
Brimming with tension, menace, mystery and emotion, The Familiars puts both Lancashire and an exciting new author firmly on the map.
(Zaffre, hardback, £12.99)