The Familiars by Stacey Halls

Once again I am indebted to The Works and their crafty three for £5 deals for getting me back into reading for pleasure on a small budget. I must have bought The Familiars before Christmas, justifying it by saying I was spending £5 on three books that looked interesting and spoke to my interests. I won’t lie and tell you that the gorgeous cover didn’t also have something to do with it; gold foil glinting in the light and details that only make sense once you’ve finished it, the cover drew me in.

The Familiars is set in 1612, in the months before the infamous Witch trials in Lancashire. The story’s protagonist, Fleetwood, is a seventeen-year old girl struggling to provide an heir for her husband. She turns to Alice, a local midwife for help in carrying to term and to act as her midwife. What follows is a fascinating exploration of female life in the early seventeenth-century and the dangers of living outside of societal expectation.

I sat down to read The Familiars and at first, I wasn’t too keen. The first page didn’t really grab me and I wasn’t really sure what was happening or why. In fact, I almost put the book down, but I’m glad I didn’t because all was soon revealed in startling detail. The ‘problem’ of the novel, Fleetwood’s worry over carrying her baby to term and surviving the birth, are focal to the plot, exploring in vivid detail a world that is usually left unexplored and even ignored in other novels. The dangers of the novel draw closer and make you question your assumptions about Stuart-era women, witches and the regimes of power that ensnared them.

My favourite things about the novel are its the attention to detail and its character development. The settings are provided with detailed, visceral descriptions that compliments the novel’s focus on the woman’s domain of the house. I love how Hall frequently describes what the characters are wearing, doing or using to provide a historical reference point that reflects the preoccupations of the novel. The fact that all the characters receive some development by the end of the novel without necessarily resolving their faults is also interesting because it relates to the best part of the novel: its historical basis.

At the end of the novel is the small section that details who and what was real, and what is purely fiction. The places described in the novel are all real, and I can only imagine Halls sitting in Gawthorpe Hall jotting down crucial descriptions to use later in her writing. Whilst most of the plot is fictionalised, it doesn’t feel it. In fact the plot, the characters and the reasoning all feel very realistic and plausible.

The back cover of the novel has a quote that says ‘The new Hilary Mantel’ and I quite agree. I can’t wait to read to other books as soon as I can.

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