This debut novel by the poet and translator A K Blakemore, which won the Desmond Elliott Prize earlier this year, is a magnificent fictionalised account of the Essex witch trials of 1645. At its centre is Rebecca West, a young woman from Manningtree, through whose eyes we see a series of grimly inevitable events unfold: eerie happenings that spread through the town, the arrival of the ‘Witchfinder General’ Matthew Hopkins, and the arrest and imprisonment of a horde of women suspected of ‘maleficium’.
The book’s most distinctive aspect is its prose, which is both authentically archaic – people eat ‘pottage’ and use words like ‘oaf’ and ‘bidden’ – and sensuously poetic: the opening description of ‘a hill wet with brume of morning, one hawberry bush squalid with browning flowers’ is typical of the book’s muscular lyricism. We follow the accused women through their long, sapping imprisonment, during which Rebecca feels that she ceases to ‘exist as a person in any sense’. Although we might be able to guess their fates, what is really striking is how the plight of these 17th-century women – their bodies policed, their desires punished, their agency extinguished – feels so pertinent almost