The Familiars by Stacey Halls – REVIEW
Fleetwood Shuttleworth is 17 years old, married, and pregnant for the fourth time. But as the mistress at Gawthorpe Hall, she still has no living child, and her husband Richard is anxious for an heir. When Fleetwood finds a letter she isn’t supposed to read from the doctor who delivered her third stillbirth, she is dealt the crushing blow that she will not survive another pregnancy.
When she crosses paths by chance with Alice Gray, a young midwife, Alice promises to help her give birth to a healthy baby and to prove the physician wrong.
When Alice is drawn into the witchcraft accusations that are sweeping the North-West, Fleetwood risks everything by trying to help her. But is there more to Alice than meets the eye?
As the two women’s lives become inextricably bound together, the legendary trial at Lancaster approaches, and Fleetwood’s stomach continues to grow. Time is running out, and both their lives are at stake.
“It’s the same life for a daughter as it is for a wife – just a different man telling you what to do.”
If you tell me a book is about witch trials then I’m going to want to read it so when I heard about The Familiars by Stacey Halls I had to request a review copy. Based on real-life events, the story explores the Pendle Witch Trials in seventeenth-century Lancashire. It’s an atmospheric and engaging narrative, driven by suspicion, fear and misogyny. The historical setting is richly evocative and it’s obvious how much research the author has done.
“No man wants an unruly wife. There is a fine line between being tolerant and being made a fool of.”
I quickly became invested in the main character, Fleetwood Shuttleworth, a seventeen-year-old woman pregnant for the fourth time. The dangers of pregnancy and the pressure to produce an heir are stifling, and it’s difficult to understand how terrifying childbirth must have been at a time when it’s estimated one in forty women died giving birth. After meeting the mysterious and reticent midwife Alice Gray, events quickly begin to spiral as accusations of witchcraft haunt the county.
“I had led her right to the centre of the web, to where the spider was waiting.”
The atmosphere of fear and suspicion engendered as neighbour turns on neighbour is wonderfully captured and I found myself worrying for both Fleetwood and Alice. Much of the fear stems from magistrate Roger Nowell who uses the witchhunt to prove his loyalty to the king and further his ambitions. The stark power contrast between gender is absolutely terrifying. Women had little to no power and were at the mercy of the men around them. Fleetwood struggles for some agency within the boundaries of what society deems acceptable and what her husband will allow. The author has portrayed these complex dynamics in a thought-provoking and nuanced manner that has me eager to research this period further.
“Rumour spread faster than disease, and could be just as destructive.”
I adored this well-written and atmospheric historical fiction book so much that I bought the Waterstones signed edition with sprayed edges. I’d definitely recommend this to anyone interested in the witch trials or who simply wants to read a beautifully written story about female friendship, gender struggles, and the social history of witches.
[Disclaimer: ARC received in exchange for an honest review.]