REVIEW: The Familiars – Stacey Halls

Author: Stacey Halls (twitter)

UK Publisher: Zaffre

Genre: Historical fiction

Fleetwood Shuttleworth is 17 years old, married, and pregnant for the fourth time. But as the mistress at Gawthorpe Hall, she still has no living child, and her husband Richard is anxious for an heir. When Fleetwood finds a letter she isn’t supposed to read from the doctor who delivered her third stillbirth, she is dealt the crushing blow that she will not survive another pregnancy.

Then she crosses paths by chance with Alice Gray, a young midwife. Alice promises to help her give birth to a healthy baby, and to prove the physician wrong.

As Alice is drawn into the witchcraft accusations that are sweeping the North-West, Fleetwood risks everything by trying to help her. But is there more to Alice than meets the eye?

Soon the two women’s lives will become inextricably bound together as the legendary trial at Lancaster approaches, and Fleetwood’s stomach continues to grow. Time is running out, and both their lives are at stake.

Only they know the truth. Only they can save each other.

I picked up this book because I had heard universally wonderful things about it. As the company I work at is part of the wider Bonnier group, I was also lucky enough to see some of the incredible sales and design work put into it before it was released. It’s a stunning book, and I was curious about the setting – the Pendle Witch Trials, of which I knew literally nothing. However, I put off reading it for far, far too long. I think part of it was a worry that it would be too dense, and too bleak (Witch Trials man, not exactly laugh-a-minute); and part of it was because it’s not my usual era of historical fiction. I don’t usually start paying attention to historical fiction until the 1700s or so, and I suspect that’s mostly to do with a traumatic over-saturation of the Tudors during various stages of my school life, so a story set in 1612 was pricking at those memories even though it’s set at the very start of James I’s reign. I also expected it to be more of a literary fiction bent, because of the subject matter, the style of the book, and the premise, and I sometimes struggle to read literary fiction as quickly as I would like – I have to take a run-up to it.

I was absolutely delighted to discover that it’s a very readable and accessible book. Though it deals with heavy themes, the narrative style is engaging and easy to follow. It never loses the sense of the story it’s telling, but while the magnitude of what is happening is always clear, it isn’t bogged down in misery that must be waded through. What makes it delightful is the friendship of the two women at the centre of the book, who both learn from each other and grow.

The narrative character is Fleetwood Shuttleworth, the 17-year-old mistress of Gawthorpe Hall in Lancashire. She has been married to her husband since she was 13, and is pregnant for the fourth time after three miscarriages. The book opens with her finding a letter to her husband, Richard, from a doctor saying that any further pregnancies will kill her. Her current pregnancy is a death sentence. We are introduced to her at a point in her life where she is suddenly questioning everything and at a crossroads. She loves her husband dearly, but he hid this letter from her. She wants to have a baby, but she knows it will kill her. The foundations of the life she’s had have started to crumble and she’s alone – her relationship with her mother is terrible, and she has no friends of her own. That’s when she meets Alice Grey, a strange woman in the woods, trespassing by accident on Shuttleworth land.

The book from there charts Fleetwod as she starts learning not to blindly trust the men in her life with everything – if Richard could hide her impending death from her, what else was he hiding? What’s behind all these stories of witches? When she discovers Alice is a midwife, and Alice promises to save her, Fleetwood learns to trust not just someone other than her husband, but also her own judgement and think for herself. It’s wonderful to see her confidence and faith in herself blossom after years of being subject to the whims and will of other people. Her friendship with Alice as it grows is really very sweet and lovely, while seeing her grow and develop is a very empowering and engaging narrative.

The really fascinating thing about this book is that it’s based on entirely true events, and all the people in it existed. Fleetwood Shuttleworth was mistress of Gawthorpe Hall, Alice Grey was accused of witchcraft. I tend to avoid stories about real people on the basis that I struggle to marry the fictionalised story with the lived reality (which is why I could never read Real Person Fanfic), but perhaps my lack of knowledge of the time is what helped me absorb this book in the way I usually can’t with fictionalised histories. Instead, only finding out it was real after reading, I had room to be impressed with the level of research that must have gone into the book. More than just of setting and culture and habits of the time, but also the spaces which Halls has filled in what must have been very bare histories of the women central to the plot. While Fleetwood’s husband has his own wikipedia page, Fleetwood herself is just a brief mention. While the other Pendle Witches have paragraphs about them, Alice Grey seems to be a mystery. Halls looked at the birth dates across generations, details on occupations, to build up lives for two women who were left just as sentences during this period of history.

That’s I think the most wonderful thing about this book. It’s a story about two women who find each other and themselves, fighting against structures and systems to build a lovely relationship. But it’s also about trying to undo the unfairness of history that women were so erased. It’s only by sheer proximity to this horrid event that either of them was even recorded, or in Fleetwood’s case because of her husband’s prominence. Halls is trying to fill in the gaps left where women should be in history, and in doing so delivers a story that is empowering, enlightening, and really quite special.

Briefly:

  • A historical novel based on facts but filling in gaps left by the records to build a wonderful story of friendship and growth between two women.
  • Despite the dark subject matter, the book isn’t hopelessly bleak. Halls has a skill in bringing light and hope into it.
  • I honestly found some of the behaviour of the people around Fleetwood utterly maddening and I found it joyous as she found her voice and took her stand.

Rating: 5/5 – this book took me by surprise. I knew it would be good, but I expected it to be much harder work to read. Instead it flowed easily and caught my imagination.

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