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.

The place for escapism

Often I hide how superficial I am but, no more, we all need to escape sometimes…

I have written before about the distractions I find on Hayu, mainly keeping up with ridiculous antics of Housewives, mouth open. I mean there’s something just truly satisfying about slobbing in your pajamas while you watch women in amazing clothes argue about the same thing for weeks on end. Unfortunately there are also Instagram accounts and Twitter feuds you can follow so that you can be embroiled in the stories for months before you see an episode. As I find myself this week trying to establish a timeline of exactly when RHOBH ladies went to Italy, I drew back a little. I had gone in too deep.

When your rubbish tv habits leads you down an internet rabbit hole, it’s time to put your phone down and pick up your kindle/book. Well that has been my solution. Here are some places I went in the last few weeks. A list of escapism fiction I would recommend if you are lucky enough to be away for a staycation or just staying at home.

Social Creature by Tara Burton Isabelle

A hit debut a few years ago this thoroughly nasty book about living your best life (online at least) is about two new friends Lavinia and Louise. Louise idolises her new friend, they live a lavish life around Manhattan, partying and drinking hard. The pure escapism comes in watching their friendship unfold with plenty of hashtags along the way. The tales twists darkly as Louise morphs her identity and eventually her life into the supremely narcisstic and fascinating Lavinia. This was a fast-paced novel that felt a bit like binge-watching You or Gossip Girl.

If you like this you would also like: Animals by Emma Jane Unsworth, I don’t why but I do enjoy a novel of hard partiers – vicarious living as a stay-at-home person, even in pre-pandemic times. This goes much deeper than Social Creatures and digs into female friendship in an equally fascinating way.

So Lucky by Dawn O’Porter

I was excited to read this novel having enjoyed The Cows by the same author. We follow the lives of three main characters. Women whose lives are entangled with the online world of a model Laura, about to get married to her millionaire boyfriend in an extravagent wedding. It is part farce, to watch various things go wrong in each woman’s life, but also part commentary about the shallowness of living life online. I think that O’Porter, who has herself a large following on Instagram and watched the destruction of her close friend, Caroline Flack, writes so well about the myriad of social issues caused by projecting our image all the time. It’s a novel that make you think, is of the present moment, but is also just really funny. I think the way she brings her characters together at the end speaks to a positive and uplifting womanhood.

If you like this, you’ll like: My Thoughts Exactly, Lily Allen. I loved the heart at the centre of this memoir about the star’s life of mistakes, lived outloud and online. I think the honesty of this book is what appealled to me.

I hope in some way you get a chance to escape this year, even if it is just in the pages of fiction.

Keeping up to date

It’s hard not to get bogged down in recent history in contemporary fiction

How do you write in the contemporary space? I have been struggling of late. The huge seismic shift of all-consuming Brexit, the Olympics which unexpectedly filled Brits with optimism, the knock on effects of years of recession and austerity. The impossible thought of presidencies and premierships that could never happen…but did. These things swirl round in the back of the world I write in. And then there is now. Pandemic times

In my mind there are now clear before times. I thought I felt this about the Brexit vote but now I know that was nothing. There is a before. Maybe there will be an after. Landscapes are shifting and changing around us. And I feel there is also great movements in politics which are shaping our world. Too much to write about.

So if you write in the contemporary space you have to take great leaps of faith. Get specific enough about setting and know it well enough that it rings true to that backdrop of the world’s rapidly changing climate. (And climate change too, how can that not be in our narratives).

In 2018 I was lucky enough to listen to Salman Rushdie’s talk “From Midnight’s Children to Trump’s America” at the Southbank Centre. This article reminds me of what he said about writing in the near present,

‘The thing that is weirdest about this book is that, when I started writing it, no one was thinking about Trump. […] When the phenomenon on Trump started, I realised that I had a character who was a corrupt billionaire, […] who liked to have his name very big on buildings and had a much younger Eastern European trophy wife. I thought – what? It’s as if the thing had jumped off the pages from my book into the real world.’

Salman Rushdie

I have been reading Rushdie’s The Golden House this week and thinking about the rifts in America that it addresses, and over here, and everywhere of course. It is a hard novel for me to read, a character with Aspergers is explored but through quite a negative lens which jars with my outlook on neurodiversity. But then, as we become entwined in the Golden family, no-one is particularly likeable. An unreliable narrator on the fringes of their life, it is hardly surprising that Rene, the auteur, does not paint any of the family in a positive light. So far, it is a fascinating depiction of money and power. And yes prescient too.

N-W by Zadie Smith

Alongside this, I have been reading N-W by Zadie Smith , circling around the lives of various people in Northwest London. It is a challenging read, much like I wrote about Girl, Woman, Other it seems almost like a series of vignettes, where you snap away from characters you have invested in to see others around them and many voices and styles of narrative are used. The intention seems to be to offer a “polyphonic” world that reflects the nature of urban life.

The novels tell the series of stories of very different people. (As I found White Teeth when I was studying Rushdie I have always paired these novelists in my head! ) I feel these two urban sagas, though very different, have been playing through my mind that there is a choice to lean in to the politics of the place. The writing then that seems to “jump off the page” into real life, in fact gives us a place to explore and appreciate the fault lines in the worlds they write about.

It’s been fascinating to spend a few months within the space of urban and contemporary fiction although on my reading list now are some fantasy and historical works to balance it all out. After all my current work-in-progress is about escaping to the countryside.

While I ponder which era I best like to read in, I wonder most how this year will end up being written?

A new reading list

I haven’t posted here for a while but I have been reading, trying to educate myself

I am so saddened by George Floyd’s murder. And Breonna Taylor’s. And so many more. I have been learning too so much more about the problems faced in the UK.

I have watched the news, listened to many people talking about these deep-rooted issues and seen some remarkable activism as part of a larger conversation. I haven’t felt safe enough to protest. so I have tried to think of other ways to engage. I have really taken the chance to think about what the Black Lives Matter conversation means in the UK.

Being me, this has meant reading of course. These are all books that have soared up the Amazon charts. I am clearly not the only one trying to support more black authors. By adding these powerful voices to my life I hope to understand and learn more.

Read this month

Queenie by Candice Carty – Williams

This book had been on my list for a while. It discusses in a joyful way really what it is to date in the modern world. But particularly for Queenie, a woman of Carribean descent, the way her body and black life is understood by others and herself. She is a witty and fascinating character and you really root for her as she tries to navigate the pitfalls in her life. But underlying all the problem she comes across in work and dating life is a darker and political edge that has an important message. Ultimately an uplifting book with a powerful message.

Why I stopped talking to white people about Race by Reno Eddo-Lodge

An essential guide in the move towards becoming Anti-Racist. I have learnt so much more about others experience over this last month and this well written report on where we are has helped. It feels important. It includes a sweep of history that is oft ignored and shared insights into the systematic inqualities of now. I don’t read a lot of non-fiction but this feels like a necessary part of the conversation.

Reading now

Girl, woman, other by Bernadine Evaristo

Another one that has been on my list for a while, last year’s Booker Prize winner does not disappoint. I am part way through and fascinated by the women I have met so far. A series of vignettes about different women’s lives it speaks to many different aspects of British culture and exploring black lives from different backgrounds and perspectives. It discusses race, political difference, and womanhood in a lively and thoughtful way.

And Next

N-w by Zadie Smith

White Teeth is probably one of my favourite novels in modern times but I haven’t read any of her work for a while so this book, about to be adapted to a BBC Drama seemed like an essential read.

If anyone else has reading suggestions, I would love to hear them.

REVIEW: Home Truths by Tina Seskis

A strong marriage can cope with the unexpected. But can it survive the unimaginable? A great thriller from the plot-twist queen

Home Truths by Tina Seskis

This novel follows the lives of two separate families over many years. As we start, Eleanor has arrived from America in pursuit of a romantic affair with a Londoner but she is soon alone and trying to make a way for herself in a new city. The other couple Paul and Christie are trying to settle into happy family together. The mystery around secrets they have held from each other drive the novel. We constantly switch between each persons point of view. Part way through, an unnamed voice appears. Someone is in prison for crimes they’ve committed but we do not know who or which of our protagonists is involved.

These mysteries hooked me just as much as One Step Too Far, Tina Seskis’ previous novel. She has been called the “Queen of the Plot Twist”and I found this a compelling read over one weekend. I particularly felt like we got to know Eleanor and I appreciated seeing how she changed as the decades passed.

At times I was frustrated by the pace and with Christie’s storyline, I felt we missed something with jumping forward in time. We learn later what happens in early motherhood. I would happily have spent more time with Christie at this time in her life. I understood that the twists of plot were driving us forward but I would have enjoyed knowing more about difficulties she faces from her perspective.


This novel is perfect for the rainy weekends we have been having or if you have to self-isolate (washes hands). I ignored my family for most of the weekend to finish it as soon as possible. Great for fans of Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl with the British realness of Laura Pearson’s novels like Missing Pieces.