17th April, 2019

Review: Wakenhyrst by Michelle Paver (Head of Zeus)

Paver's Wakenhyrst was one of my most anticipated new releases of 2019. I was giddy with excitement when I finally got my grubby little hands on a copy but unfortunately the book didn't live up to my expectations. Bummer! But let's start with a plot synopsis:

1906: A large manor house, Wake's End, sits on the edge of a bleak Fen, just outside the town of Wakenhyrst. It is the home of Edmund Stearn and his family – a historian, scholar and land-owner, he's an upstanding member of the local community. But all is not well at Wake's End. Edmund dominates his family tyrannically, in particular daughter Maud. When Maud's mother dies in childbirth and she is left alone with her strict, disciplinarian father, Maud's isolation drives her to her father's study, where she happens upon his diary.

During a walk through the local church yard, Edmund spots an eye in the undergrowth. His terror is only briefly abated when he discovers its actually a painting, a 'doom', taken from the church. It's horrifying in its depiction of hell, and Edmund wants nothing more to do with it despite his historical significance. But the doom keeps returning to his mind. The stench of the Fen permeates the house, even with the windows closed. And when he lies awake at night, he hears a scratching sound – like claws on the wooden floor...

This is what I was expecting - especially after having read and adored Paver's previous work: an creepy ghost story. Alas, what I got was an only slightly eerie tale in which the most disconcerting element was the gothic mansion it is set in. Yes, it does explore questions of the supernatural and its relation to what we perceive as real. It is also a nice twist on the stereotype of the madwoman as we here have a strong female character and a male character who is losing his wits. In a way the story was reminiscent of John Harding's Florence and Giles but it lacked its finesse and playful subtlety. I was also always waiting for really terrifying things to happen but those didn't go beyond devilish figures leering at characters from the painting. 

What I did enjoy was the setting. The mansion itself is eerie enough but the surrounding fen with its earthy smells and strange noises was equally unsettling. Some characters were better drawn than others and I liked how Maud's perception of situations differed to that of her father. The story is also an interesting exploration of psychopathic and manipulative behaviour. 

So I didn't like this book as much as I had anticipated, but it was a decent read nevertheless. If you read this as a gothic study of turn-of-the-century character relations, you'll probably enjoy it. If you are looking for a full-on horror story full of terrors as in Paver's Dark Matter, you may be disappointed. 

Rating: 2/5 stars

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