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Stacey Halls’ much lauded debut The Familiars is a vividly told piece of historical fiction. It takes its name from the ‘helpful demonic companions’, usually small animals, said to help witches do their magic. Based on the real-life witch hunts of early seventeenth-century Pendle, The Familiars follows plucky protagonist seventeen-year-old Fleetwood Shuttleworth, the mistress of Gawthorpe Hall in Lancashire. Married at fourteen, Fleetwood has aleady suffered three gruelling, unsuccessful pregnancies. As the book opens, she is pregnant with her fourth child and has discovered a letter from her husband’s physician warning him that the pregnancy will, in all probability, kill her, news that he has withheld from her. After Fleetwood comes across Alice Gray, a young poor midwife, the two women strike up a friendship of sorts, Alice believing that she can help save Fleetwood’s baby. However, when Alice is one of a group accused of witchcraft, Fleetwood is determined to help her. Essentially, The Familiars is a tale of two young women, from very different walks of life, struggling to survive.

The stars of this book are the historical detail and sense of time and place, Halls evoking an early modern England, still medieval in many ways, and bound by folklore and suspicion. Women, irrespective of class and wealth, are inferior in every way, their lives controlled by the men around them. And those who break the mould, like Alice, threatening the status quo, are effectively exterminated, the witch trials just one method of doing that.

Fleetwood is an interesting character, spoilt and indulged on one hand, her wealth, position and marital status allowing her a certain freedom to do what she wants, yet, in reality, she exists in a gilded cage. Her value is defined by her beauty, youth and ability to breed and her fate lies ultimately in the hands of her husband, Richard. Yet, she is a woman seemingly without depth, in contrast to Alice, and this can be a tad frustrating as it is essentially her story. Nonetheless, The Familiars is a compelling tale, the detail rich and the world that Halls creates extremely easy to visualise. It’s thus no surprise that it’s been optioned for television.

This is a very good read: enjoyable, evocative, immersive.

 

Stacey Halls | The Familiars | Zaffre | paperback | 24 September 2019 | £8.99 | other editions available

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Halls’ new book, The Foundling, will be published in spring 2020.

 

Acknowledgements: Many thanks to Tracy Fenton of Compulsive Readers and to the publisher for sending a review copy and the great jacket image. All opinions are our own. All rights reserved.

Also of interest:  ‘Rowan Coleman’s nod to Gothic literature‘; ‘Cynthia Jefferies’ rollicking great adventure’ ; ‘The Story Keeper: Anna Mazzoli’s Gothic tale’‘; ‘We should all be feminists’; ‘The not so invisible woman: I50 in their own words‘; ‘The word for freedom: standing up for women everywhere’; ‘IWM Classics: Trial by Battle‘; ‘IWM Classics: From the City From the Plough‘;  ‘Only Remembered edited by Michael Morpurgo’; ‘Karl Tearney’s healing a “torn mind”‘; ‘Mary Monro’s Stranger in My Heart‘; ‘’Lisa Ko’s The Leavers’; ‘20 books this summer challenge‘; How Penguin learned to fly – Allen Lane and the Original Penguin Ten’; ‘Book covers we love – Dorothy L. Sayer’s Busman’s Holiday’.

This review is © 2019 by The Literary Shed. All rights reserved. All opinions are our own. We welcome your feedback and comments. If you wish to reproduce this piece, please do contact us to request permission. Thank you so much.