The Witchfinder's Sister by Beth Underdown

No Series
Historical Drama

Source: Netgalley ARC rating

The number of women my brother Matthew killed, so far as I can reckon it, is one hundred and six...

1645. When Alice Hopkins' husband dies in a tragic accident, she returns to the small Essex town of Manningtree, where her brother Matthew still lives.

But home is no longer a place of safety. Matthew has changed, and there are rumours spreading through the town: whispers of witchcraft, and of a great book, in which he is gathering women's names.

To what lengths will Matthew's obsession drive him?
And what choice will Alice make, when she finds herself at the very heart of his plan?

"For they say what happened, but not what it was like. They say what happened, but they do not say why.”

Witch hunting is one of the most embarrassing pieces of human history. ‘The Witchfinder’s Sister’ is a fictional tale where the author conceives a plausible viewpoint of Matthew Stafford’s sister. This isn’t based on a true story since, while these characters were real, so little is known about them. We do know that during the Essex witch trials between the years of 1645 and 1647, that hundreds of women were investigated for witchcraft and many were murdered as a result of it.

Beth Underdown is spot on for the dreary and run-down writing tone fitting the bleak storyline for her debut novel. Beautifully written, haunting, moving, the prose fits the plot perfectly and uplifts it to another level. Written poorly, this story wouldn’t have worked nearly as well since the atmosphere was such a key part of the experience, and that can only be achieved with lyrical writing that suits it.

The story follows the sister Alice who must return home humiliated and penniless after her husband died. Her brother accepts her with open arms, kind of, but she soon finds out that the twisted relative has somehow managed to sway the town under his spell. It’s not just his lust for power or terror of women, but she finds out another secret that may explain the psychology of why he became so demented in the first place.

Alice is a worthy enough character on her own, although at times I wanted to shake her. I know she was stuck because of the people she was trying to protect and because of the lack of choices women had back then though, but she found her backbone anyway and lived to carry on.

The side characters that helped strengthen her amped the story up well – Bridget, the run-down housekeeper with a strong moral balance but little defenses was especially effective. The author doesn’t give her an unrealistic personality to suit modern politics as some historical pieces with women characters dare to do, and that makes the story feel even more genuine and moving.

I dig that the author introduced the actual possibility of real magic into the storyline too, making even Alice doubt that supernatural forces may be at play. It makes sense that even if they thought Matthew was wrong, small doubts would start infecting even her, so I liked this realism on human fault.

The author did an admirable job of capturing the oppressive and struggling atmosphere the women must have experienced, and she doesn’t shy away from the details of the tests, trials, imprisonments, betrayals, and twisted facts of the case. Even the small details are covered to loan authenticity.

It’s a slower paced book at times, but the bulk of it is needed to fit the storyline’s emphasis on the demented fanaticism that ruined so many lives so cruelly, so senselessly.

Recommended for fans of drama, whether they favor historical time pieces or modern ones – it’s a moving account of a horrific time in human history that we shouldn’t ever forget.

An honest review has been provided after receiving this one from Netgalley as an ARC – much thanks to the publisher and author.

   Book Quotes:

“... resentment buried is not gone. It is like burying a seed: for a season it may stay hidden in the dark, but in the end, it will always grow.”

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