REVIEW: Wakenhyrst

I have written of my love of gothic fiction before and Michelle Paver’s recent bestseller is a new favourite

Wakenhyrst is a gothic mansion hidden in the fenlands of Suffolk near where I recently spent a week away so I was very happy to make this one of my first autumn reads. Suffolk is an area full of myth, it’s the perfect spot for this tale of horror, both imagined and real. As the blurb describes, the house is surrounded by” a glinting wilderness of water whose whispering reeds guard ancient secrets. Maud is a lonely child growing up without a mother, ruled by her repressive father. When he finds a painted medieval devil in a graveyard, unhallowed forces are awakened.” The old manor house, this one being encroached on by the smell and damp of the fen, is full of great cast of characters whose lives are unravelled by the discovery of the painting.

I was a bit confused at first whether this novel was going to lurch back and forth between the 1960s journalist writing about Wakenhyrst and the fin-de-siecle setting but we find this is in fact just the framing for Maud’s story. She becomes our protagonist and we grow with her as she matures and manages to understand more about her father, Edmund Stearne, the villain of the piece.

Stearne is haunted by his discovery of a painting and also by his scholarship into Alice Pyett, a fictionalised version of Margery Kemp. In his pursuit to understand Alice’s visions, as well as her apparent madness, his own mental health seems to deteriorate. The gap between what both he and Maud believe is happening and their differing beliefs about both religion and folklore all make for a compelling mystery. You find yourself racing through to find out the truth. I can imagine I will need to read it again to capture all the detail.

I enjoyed the level of detail that went into many aspects of their lives: the artwork, local customs, the landscape and the food they eat. All of these make it feel like you are in knowledgeable hands and that the writer is enveloping you in this world she has found.

The characters in the novel, particularly through Maud’s eyes are often comical and I enjoyed meeting the repugnant doctor and lascivious Ivy. The psychological nature of this novel really appealled to me and though many of the characters are often villianous, it also feels they are grounded in truth.

I wasn’t completely sure why we needed to follow the story of Maud into later life. Many parts of the mystery unfolding were exciting enough and I expected the novel to end before it did. I did really enjoy the novel but it was the historical part of the fiction that was the best for me.

I would definitely recommend this novel for fans of gothic fiction and folklore.

If you like this, you will also like:

The strong and sassy female lead in The Mermaid and the Bear. Set amongst the witchcraft hysteria in 17th century Scotland, this is also full of fascinating details of the time and great historical fiction. My review is here

In The Night Wood by Dale Bailey the main character is an academic studying an old manuscript of fairy stories that comes to haunt him. This time the manor house is set in great woods, but just like the fen in Wakenhyrst, they it starts to encroach on the tumbledown manor.

Tripping up

Things go wrong in life sometimes just to remind you to find the humour

Today I walked in the woods. This is a common occurrence, the setting of my work-in-progress is wooded so I get to call it a research trip. Though I haven’t actually worked on it or made progress for quite sometime, getting out in nature was calling to me. So in the interest of research, -or just indulging my passion for the best season, Autumn– I have been out and about amongst the trees again.

I took a shot of a fairy door, the oaks twisted me around so I got a little lost and there were acorn galore to crunch on..so far, so perfect. And then, the puddles starting to seep through my trainers, I decided to make my way back another way. Winding through soggy earth to spot footholds I made it back to the main path. But my way was not clear, the path was flooded but I couldn’t face going back on myself. Instead I performed a spectacular leap across the path in a bid to jump over a pond-like puddle. Rather than fly effortlessly to the other side, I landed in it, cracking my knee and getting water all the way up my leg. All the way. I might as well walked back along the river.

The worst thing about falling over as an adult is you are not supposed to cry but laugh it off. Alone,there was noone to pull me up, noone to hear me gamely laugh along. Actually, that may be the best thing today. Looking around, I had got away with it. Not a soul to see my fall or more importantly how pathetic my leap had been. I managed an awkward limp along until I established my legs were working alright. I got back mainly unseen in very muddy clothes, stripped off at the door and found a dramatic scraped knee but little else to show.

But you have got to laugh. And I did at myself for being a clutz. And also because I think scraped knees are supposed to be something that happens to children and if I hadn’t been taking pleasure in nature for the sake of it, this wouldn’t have happened to me. I remember someone who read a scene about my main character said to me “I think she’s quite witty.” A compliment, for sure. But also because seeing adults doing childlike things there has to be some comedy there.

When I do something ridiculous (which happens more than it should) I think I can “use this” in my work. Not necessarily to write comedy, but because if life isn’t tripping your characters up then what are they even doing in the woods in the first place?

REVIEW: Among the Trees

Hayward Gallery, London

What a strange and perfect first foray into London after six months, an exhibition about trees at the Southbank Centre. In truth I chose an event at the Southbank because it is just one train to get there for me, reducing the time out in a mask. Like testing the water, a place I know so not too far out of my comfort zone. I have written before about my anxieties in the City which always go hand-in-hand with the child-like buzz of excitement I get to be there.

So in town again, amongst not too many people, I am also at an exhibition designed for me, it seems, called Among the Trees. It is a collection of artwork from the last fifty years that captures trees and importantly human’s interactions with them. A time span chosen to reflect the modern environmentalist movement. With this in mind, the centre piece upstairs at the exhibition is a tree of life-size proportions with a leaves of colourful plastic bags. A little on the nose, it is a bright moment in quite a dark exhibition.

My favourite piece another large installation is Forêt Palatine – a cardboard forest. What is great that climbing the stairs I got a view of the whole exhibition space, everyone mercifully spread out, and a glimpse of the forest. The detail on it, made you want to touch but you can’t. A tale for now, indeed.

I loved the Rachel Sussman photographs too, she has travelled the world for a decade finding the oldest things on the planet, like the underground forest in South Africa that has been in the ground for 13,000 years. Nothing like living through a pandemic for an existential crisis. But isn’t this the perfect place to be. The two video installations of trees begging us to just stop and stare. They anchor us and challenge our ideas about longevity.

The final gallery speaks more to human interaction with trees, photos of New York trees with metal fencing growing through them and a British painter, George Shaw displaying rubbish around an old tree. These artworks, rather than venerate the old trees, remark on how we encroach on natural life. These and Sussmann’s work in stark contrast where an ancient tree is in a open landscape, a pillar of ancient in a sparse world.

I think this was a great way back to the museum. The exhibition has a simple message but one that speaks to us if we just take a moment to reflect on the way we have been forced to slow down. Where was the one place we spent our daily exercise during lockdown, why local woods of course. And I’m always happiest among the trees.

Has anyone else braved museums in these new-normal times?

Writing to music

Is there a best way to concentrate, I find I need a soundtrack but choosing one is hard.

It seems like a simple thing, to set up a soundtrack and be whisked away somewhere else. Particularly while I am working with distractions in the background. But when I am more mindful, it is amazing to see how much of a distraction my music can be. Within beats of a song, my mood shifts and I have been transported elsewhere. Listening to music I find my mind has wandered to so many places

Paying attention more, I notice that the boy band song sweeps over me with an irritation. It’s only as I explore the emotion, I realise that I have been harbouring resentment from 20 years ago. I was invited, then uninvited to a concert by some mean girls at school. This has left me finding this particularly saccharine pop extra unpalatable. I had forgotten this slight and I suspect that the truth was there was no room in the car. Or I had no-one to take me or we didn’t have money in time for the tickets. All of which are perfectly reasonable reasons that invite was rescinded, but still a bittersweet taste. I didn’t like them then, still don’t, their pop a little too dull for even my abysmal tastes, but a hurt unrested.

I will be trying to complete the housework with a playlist and wonder why I suddenly feel despondent, only to realise the song I am listening to is morose. There was a particular time of day when I was working at the shop where I would slow in my tidying jobs, down-hearted at the continuous tasks of straightening, round and round the store. It took me nearly a year to recognise that my blood sugar was dipping and my mood was brought down by the repetitive strains of “Are we out of the woods yet, are we out of the woods?” Something about Taylor Swift’s pleas tugged at my emotions that I would be effected at roughly the same time each day.

(Not me!)

So what instead can I do to listen to music and write. Well, one strategy is to listen to music in another language, Jennifer Lopez’ Spanish albums or I listen to “Coffee and Chill” playlists on Spotofy. Weirdly I still find the hypnotic pull of a Morcheeba album. This was the album that I studied with through A’Levels with and I wonder if my brain has remember what it was like to work really hard with that on in the background.

Do you find music too much of a distraction to work? I wish my busy brain would work in silence but for me I find that is the most distracting thing of all. Will someone please fix that tap…

Back to School

Listening to Gretchen Rubin’s podcast this week, I couldn’t agree more, September is a new start

Here in the UK children are going back to school in the next two weeks. They may have to get used to some new things, like masks in the corridors, or eating at their school desks if they can’t be outside. They may have to learn some things afresh like how to sit still in class, how to write again, how to be around people but not too close. But it’s clear a decision has been made that school is essential again.

I am really looking forward to some routine in our lives. Even though we muddled through home-learning (what we attempted could never be called a homeschool), we never hit a routine more than my son reminding me it was play time each morning. I am looking forward to some time to myself and seeing friends though with the new rules in place, not getting too close or seeing anyone too often. I am also looking forward to a sense of some normality, though it has all changed, the new normal is better than that time we stayed inside our house for three months.

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

The fact that school is definitely back has led to a few discussions in our household already. Being a Mum of a kid whose special needs mean he resists changes and transitions anyway, I am used to battles about going to school. But Social Story in hand and special visit arranged we are going boldly forward with the “school is now open” full time plan. At times I feign optimism for him, mixed with the dread that sits in my stomach most days now. I am also getting more positive that this will be good for both of us.

It’s clear that the government is scrambling to convince parents it is safe, new policies are coming out every day that suggest what will happen, how things will change, if we have a local lockdown. But in the meantime there are news articles about how safe children are at school. I have been reading all the articles, despite trying to stay away from the news. It’s safe now. We think. Mercifully our children will not get terribly ill if they catch the virus, I just hope that mildness means the same can be said for us and their teachers if they do pass it on.

In a bid to read between the lines I think the answer is we probably don’t know what will happen in the next few months. As it stands, the government seem pretty determined that the schools will stay open come what may. Afterall, they kept the pubs open even though family members couldn’t meet at home in Manchester and Yorkshire in recent weeks, I guess they will do the same with schools. And hope for the best. Because that is where we are really.

So though the news articles haven’t completely allayed my fears, I can’t help but feel a sense of newness in the air. I wonder if despite the challenges ahead for me and my son, I can find ways to lift the anxiety and get back to normal. Gretchen Rubin explains here in the article which accompanied her recent podcast that September is the new January because it can give us a sense of a clean slate. That means that when you make a big change in your life, you can often change a habit at the same time, “exploiting the new” as she describes it. So for me I need to go forward with a more positive mindset about the fresh start at school. And maybe work harder on my habit of not reading the news.

How are you feeling about going back to school?