Book Review: Wakenhyrst

Wakenhyrst, by Michelle Paver, is loosely woven around facts and folklore from rural Suffolk and a supposedly enlightened England. Many of the attitudes and behaviours depicted were still pervasive in the not too distant past. The author has located the titular hamlet close to ancient fens that locals both enjoy and fear. Its church, St Guthlaf’s, was originally built in the Middle Ages. Much of the story is set in Edwardian times when a wealthy landowner and respected historian, Edward Stearne, ruled his family home, Wake’s End, with a stern hand (such Dickensian naming). The tale is told by his daughter, Maud, who by 1966 was the only survivor and lived as a recluse in what was by then a house in disrepair.

The book opens in this later time with a journalist visiting Maud to try to learn more of a murder she witnessed as a teenager that led to her father’s incarceration at Broadmoor. Written in tabloid style, the short exposition is followed by a series of letters between Maud and an art historian, Dr Robin Hunter, who is eager to access a notebook in which Edward Stearne may have written about his inspiration for famous paintings he produced while locked away in the asylum. Maud has no wish to have anything more to do with the outside world after her experience with the journalist. It is only when a violent storm puts her home at risk that she agrees to tell Dr Hunter about her childhood and the events that led to her father’s undoing.

Maud’s story opens in 1906 when she is six years old. Her beloved mother has gone into labour, a regular event that often leads to a baby born dead. Maud has just the one sibling, Richard, who she regards with contempt. Her handsome father is a pious man whom she fears but longs to impress. Maud’s childish beliefs are coloured by the church’s teachings and the tales told of the fen by household servants. As God has not listened to her pleas for help, she prays to the fen that her mother may survive.

St Guthlaf’s church contains gorgoyles, sculptures and carvings that date back to medieval times. These include animals, mythical creatures and devils intended to warn sinners to repent. Much of the church’s vivid artwork would have been painted over by the Puritans. When Edward donates a sizeable sum of money to enable improvements to the building he unwittingly unleashes forces in the form of an historic mural known as a Doom.

Maud is starved of affection and pours out her love on an injured magpie that she sets free but continues to feed. The only animals her father will tolerate are the horses required to pull his carriage. Rebelling against the strictures enforced by Edward’s many rules, Maud takes to wandering the fen, something he forbids. There is suggestion of an event from his childhood that led to him hating and fearing the place.

As the years pass Maud must cope with grief and the impossible love she feels for a young gardener in her father’s employ. Being female she is regarded as lacking sense, despite her obvious intelligence. Her father allows her to help him with menial tasks in his work but assumes she is incapable of comprehension. Maud secretly reads the journals he keeps and is appalled to discover his true nature, and where this leads.

Journal entries are included verbatim throughout the text. The window this offers into the attitudes of an Edwardian gentleman are disturbing. When Edward becomes obsessed and potentially dangerous, Maud finds she has nowhere to turn – her concerns repeatedly dismissed as hysteria. Her father is affected by the doom and the fen, by his guilt and knowledge of church history. Maud soon realises how precarious her situation is.

The author taps into the shadows and cracks that generate fear in the dark even rational minds struggle to dismiss. As the story progresses these elements build providing an undercurrent of unease. It is not so much what is true that matters as what is believed and feared.

The effects of class and gender divides offer a stark background for a beguiling tale of arrogance and misdirected fervour. At its heart though is a story of a house and a fen, each emanating secrets and rich histories that colour the lives of inhabitants across generations. Whilst not quite as tightly woven and therefore on par with the author’s previous work – the spellbinding Dark Matter this was a compelling and creepy tale that I enjoyed reading.

Wakenhyrst is published by Head of Zeus.

My copy of this book was borrowed from my local library.

Book Review: Thin Air

Thin Air, by Michelle Paver, is a ghost story from an author who knows how to write compelling suspense. Having read her excellent Dark Matter a couple of years ago I had been saving this one for my Halloween read. It did not disappoint.

Set in 1935 it tells the story of a group of five wealthy, English gentlemen who set out to conquer Kangchenjunga, the third highest peak on earth. Public school and Oxbridge educated, they climb to prove their supremacy over nature, with some regarding aids such as crampons or oxygen tanks as unsporting on such an endeavour. One of the group has not had quite such as privileged an upbringing, something that sets him apart – a suspicion over his trustworthiness in a crisis.

“He’s also a shade off in the vowels, and seems very eager to fit in”

Such snobbery is nothing compared to the way these grown boys, setting off on a spiffing adventure, regard the natives they employ to fetch and carry. These men and women include the Sherpas who will transport kit and provisions as well as guiding the group through the hostile high terrain. Where the ‘sahibs’ struggle with exertion and altitude, the local men cover the same ground numerous times setting up base camps, cooking food, and advising on conditions. Their wariness of the mountain, manifesting in rituals, is treated with disdain.

The English party includes two brothers, Kit and Stephen, who struggle to contain their long standing sibling rivalry. Stephen was invited late, as the necessary group doctor, after the original choice suffered an incapacitating mishap.

The story is narrated by Stephen as it unfolds. Although excited and determined he increasingly suffers nightmares and a heightened awareness of malevolent forces. He must suppress his fears if he is to be permitted to continue.

The story opens with a visit to the last remaining survivor of a previous attempt to climb the mountain, which ended in failure and numerous deaths. A memoir was written about this self-declared heroic experience which led to Kit revering the author and group leader, Lyell. Kit now intends to follow in Lyell’s footsteps, and to succeed in reaching the summit and planting the British flag before rival Germans. Their native helpers are fearful of the spirits that linger on a doomed route.

The attitudes of the Englishmen are astonishing. They regard day climbs in the Alps as sufficient preparation for the Himalayas. One has a touch of arthritis which the others try not to mention. They bring a typewriter and a gramophone as luggage, carried of course by the Sherpas who they treat as animals, load bearers with no sense or agency. The English regard their endeavour as meritorious despite the obvious risks to themselves and their essential helpers.

The journey offers many challenges, exacerbated by altitude sickness. As a doctor Stephen understands the effects but cannot shake his growing, visceral fear. When mail is delivered (incongruous as this may seem during a challenging mountain adventure, but the English abroad do demand that their standards be catered for) he learns of the true fate of the group’s predecessors. What he has tried to convince himself cannot exist, now presents as a deadly threat.

The story is masterfully structured with an authentic voice, interesting character development and building tension. The self-importance of the English is both staggering and depressingly familiar. This is a ghost story but also a portrayal of the foolishness of those raised to believe themselves superior due to birth and wealth. It is a reminder that nature does not distinguish, and it is in man’s interest to treat his surrounds with care and respect.

Thin Air is published by Orion Books.

Book Review: Dark Matter

darkmatter

Dark Matter, by Michelle Paver, is a deliciously disturbing story of a 1930s arctic expedition that pitted rational man against isolation, darkness and the supernatural. Presented in the form of a journal it offers an insight into the effects of anxiety over time, and how the mind cannot always be controlled.

When the story opens, Jack Miller, a grammar school boy with a London degree, has just met with the wealthy and titled Oxbridge educated quartet who have gained funding for a year long scientific research trip to a remote arctic island between Norway and the North Pole. They require a communications expert and have been told that Jack may be their man. Intimidated by their privilege and familiarity, Jack struggles to believe he could fit in. However, his life in London is such that he is desparate for change.

Six months later he has resigned from his job, not without some misgivings, and sets off as an accepted member of the team. The excitement of the undertaking carries them all through the journey and the setting up of their camp. Rotas are agreed and a routine established as the days shorten towards what, in this part of the world, will be four months of darkness cut off from the world by a frozen sea.

The skipper of the boat which provided their transport had been reluctant to take them to their chosen base. He had talked of it being a place that made bad things happen. The scientists refuse to accept such an irrational opinion, but a seed of doubt has been sown. By the time the boat leaves events have conspired to shrink the team to three. Jack has also experienced moments of sudden fear that he cannot explain.

Before the long winter truly closes in around the group, illness hits and Jack is left to cope on his own. Amidst the relentless darkness and isolation he must also deal with the prescence of a terrifying spectral being whose existence he was loath to admit but which he can no longer deny.

The stark beauty of the frozen wilderness becomes a threat. Jack does his best to continue the work the team was funded to undertake but his mind is battling with a fear he cannot rationally explain. Reluctant to appear foolish, and eager to retain the admiration of his team leader, he denies that anything is wrong when he communicates with the outside world. Alone he struggles to maintain any semblance of a normal existence.

The author brilliantly evokes the irrationality of certain fears and the very real impact they can have. The reader feels the cold seeping in under doors, and listens with trepidation for unexplained footfall or the breathing of someone who cannot be there.

With new scientific discoveries being made all the time, how much is really known about the world in which we live? This is a ghost story of the highest order.