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.

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?

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.

REVIEW: The Perfect Girlfriend

A few weeks ago, we went away for our annual night in a luxurious hotel: January is a great time to get a bargain. (I’m saying annual so I can insist we do it again, by the way) Picture me chilled out from the hotel spa, relaxing on a lounger and unable to go in the steam room because I needed to devour this book. The Perfect Girlfriend was the perfect book for my getaway.

the perfect girlfriend

REVIEW: The Perfect Girlfriend by Karen Hamilton

Juliette has reinvented herself, becoming a flight attendant to get closer to pilot Nate. He may be her ex-boyfriend, but not for long. They were perfect together. She will do whatever it takes to be with him again. Finding any means to insert herself back into his life, she will follow him anywhere. She she will become what she knows he wants: The Perfect Girlfriend.

From the moment Juliette applies the tacky pink lipstick I was hooked on the woman, someone who knows how to “look calm and controlled” and as we get to know her, we learn the extent of the control she asserts over her life.  I was hooked by the twists and turns of the mind of Juliette as she lurches from one devious plan to another to win Nate back into her life.

The strong, and at times unstable voice of the main character has this odd appeal. As she reveals those who may have wronged her, including the mean girls at school, you can’t help but side with her. This is a great strength in Hamilton’s writing, the slow reveals of details, this whisper of a back story that involves her brother Danny. All of it makes you feel sympathy for Juliette when really, we can see from the first pages, that she is at best scheming.

Much like Amy Dunne in Gone Girl, we are misdirected by the appeal of her character. She manages to get back into Nate’s life in some ways that I won’t spoiler for you, but it is chilling. The thing I think that is most interesting to consider is that if the character were male, attempts to be so controlling would be abhorrent. There is a double standard which I think speaks to the history of the character’s relationships, how she has been treated in the past that makes us think again about whether her behaviour can be understood, if not forgiven.

It is the strength of the novel that the author plays on the use of technology, while of course it shows the tight plotting, it also shows how relaxed we have become by a modern the accessibility of online stalking. By virtue of the life she is leading she has isolated herself so some of the other characters we only get to know through her unreliable narration. No-one is very likeable, Bella, Miles and particularly Nate leave us cold.

I love that we get the detail about the life of a flight attendant. Karen Hamilton has been a flight attendant for many years, and her knowledge of the rigours, of the routes and maybe even some of the drama too, really comes across. I did find some of the details slowed down the narrative, like when they fly off on one of their trips and do some tourism. At times I perhaps was a little incredulous at some of the coincidences that happen with these flights.

But still, the journey Juliette goes on makes sense to us. The details about that lifestyle that Hamilton shares explains why Juliette is compelled to join the nomadic life of a flight attendant. It suits her personality a bit too well. And like the pink lipstick, only superficially glamourous, it seems.

The real master stroke is the unravelling of Juliette’s plans as the stakes are raised again and again in the final hundred pages. The unexpected consequences of her actions make for great twists that keep coming. Even if at times you want to read only half-looking through your fingers.

Overall this fascinating thriller had me gripped over a long weekend and will be the perfect book if you’re flying off somewhere.

Further reading

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