It was not me who discovered Michelle Paver about five years ago, but my daughter when she pulled “The Wolf Brothers” off the shelf at our local library and then read all six books of the “Chronicles of Ancient Darkness” in short succession. So you may forgive me, that I had Michelle Paver down as a middle grade author until I saw Wakenhyrst on the shelf at the same library but this time in the adult section of “new and notable releases”. The magpie on the cover sealed the deal, because I adore the birds for their chatter and cheekiness.
The story starts in the 1960ies, when a journalist tries to uncover more details of the events in 1913 that lead an eminent historian Edward Stearne to be sent to Broadmoor, a high-security psychiatric hospital after committing a brutal and random murder. The journalist in the 1960, intrigued to find out more about Stearne after a historian finds some paintings by Stearne done during his time in Broadmoor. He comes to a different conclusion as to who committed the murder and thus we are thrown back to 1906. We meet Maud, the eldest daughter of Edward Stearne, who at the time is 9 years old. The whole family is under the thumb of Stearne who has imposed so many rules about what the family is allowed and not allowed to do. Maud tries to make sense of the goings on in the house and we work our way towards that fateful day in 1913 with utter relentlessness.
Paver demonstrates, that you can have unlikeable characters that are engaging. So often when a story features loathsome protagonists, authors forget that the reader still wants to find out why they do what the do, how they became the way they are and how they feel about the consequences of their actions. Naturally, Stearne is utterly unlikeable, a tyrant, he clearly has been mentally unstable all his life, but because he is financially independent, a landowner, a scholar, he can do pretty much whatever pleases him. As for Maude, I was never quite sure, how much I could trust her, but I certainly felt for her. Whatever she did, I could understand her reasoning, her motives.
Maud is caught up in the rules of the society of her time. Her father knows that she is intelligent, at the same time dismisses her as a stupid girl. She is self-educated because nobody cares to educate her, so she often comes to wrong conclusions. Utterly alone, she has no confidante, no support and when she turns to the stalwarts in her society for help, she is dismissed and threatened. It makes for a claustrophobic, dark experience, when you put yourself in Maud’s shoes.
I adored how Paver made the natural surroundings in the book of central importance to the characters: Stearne who fears the marsh and the fenland and Maud who feels truly herself when she is in the wildnerness of the fens, a forbidding place, but the only place she can truly be herself. Religion is an important aspect of the book, but nature is the true spirit in this book, where absolution and judgement takes place. Nature wins.
Paver is a truly gifted storyteller, it is rare for me to read a book that I cannot put down and essentially, I read this in one sitting. So you may imagine my pleasure to realise that she has written more books for adults. And thus, the TBR has grown and I am delighted.