A superb gothic horror set in the wild fens of Suffolk.
I first came across Michelle Paver with her excellent ghost story Dark Matter, set amidst an arctic expedition in 1939. She followed that with Thin Air, another great ghost story, but this time set in the Himalayas in the 1930s, following the route of a previous expedition earlier in the century.
Now we have Wakenhyrst, a village amidst the fens at the turn of the century, where some unpleasant events have left long and deep scars. The book begins in mid-sixties, with a PhD student attempting to make contact with Maud Sterne. Would she be able to help her with her study of a painting known as the Wakenhyrst Doom?
This painting is to become the crux of the story we about to learn about. We go back in time to 1906 and the Stearne household who live in Wake’s End adjacent to one of the fens. The father of the house, Edmund Stearne, is a monster. He forces his wife to bear child after child, with so many being still-born or barely surviving birth. He lays down strict rules all about the house, including the requirement that he basically never interact with his own children (those who make it alive). “Father” is always about his studies, while young Maud is treated with general disdain as a female.
What changes things is his discovery at the local church, St Guthlaf’s, of a hidden painting representing the Last Day of Judgement. Painted on planks and then whitewashed over in the sixteenth century to protect worshippers’ eyes from the licentious behaviour depicted as sending you to hell, it is this painting’s discovery that sends things spiralling out of control. And there are things from the past that in due course will be uncovered.
To say more would be unfair, but the attention to detail is wonderful. You feel that you’re living and breathing in the old house, sitting on the edge of the fens with the sounds and smells that would bring.
The rural life is captured beautifully, with the poor labourers who make ends meet and need the employment of rich landowners like Stearne. Paver gives us some beautiful descriptions of things like eel-babbing and starling murmations.
But it also captures a madness that comes from an obsessional attempt to understand both the painting and studies into the lives of other obsessives.
Everything beautifully comes together in this well-told tale.
I couldn’t put it down and can’t recommend this book highly enough!
Wakenhyrst is published by Head of Zeus on 4 April 2019. Thank you to the publishers and Netgalley for my advance reader copy.