About six months ago two of my dearest friends and I decided to reinstate our book club. We all loved being a part of the club a few years back but life, as always, intervened and we got out of the habit of meeting to chat in general let alone meeting to talk about books. It's been a real mixed bag of picks so far. We've each taken it in turns to choose a title (none of which won us over), then we decided to choose a classic (lots of turbulent life events coincided over Christmas and clashed with this one) then we thought we'd go for a pretty cover! Unfortunately, I had to postpone our latest meeting due to my daughter's tonsillitis so this review will be online before we actually get to discuss it in person.
The usual format of our meet is as follows: meet in a local Waterstones, have coffee and cake while discussing life, the universe and, of course, the latest book. Then we choose the next book before making our way to another cafe for lunch! I love these days. Good company and books. The best combination.
So, this month we made the joint decision of The Familiars by Stacey Halls. As obvious and shallow as it sounds we were all taken in by the stunning cover. The blurb also promised a dark and brooding tale set in 1612, Lancashire during the Pendle witch trials. The blurb promised drama, secrets and danger so I expected a novel full of atmosphere and slow building plot. Was I right?
"To have a child, she will have to trust a stranger. To protect a secret, she must risk her life...Only they know the truth. Only they can save each other."
Halls based her novel around a cast of real people: husband and wife Fleetwood and Richard Suttleworth, Alice Gray, Roger Nowell and the Devices family. We are introduced to 17 year old Fleetwood when she is in the early stages of her fourth pregnancy having sadly lost her other children at varying stages of pregnancy. Yes, you read that right...she has lost so much at such an early age. Hidden amongst her husbands papers, Fleetwood comes across a letter written by the doctor under whose care she lost her last child. The letter states that a further pregnancy will result in the death of mother and child. Finding this letter plunges her into a blind panic as she feels betrayed by Richard. Why would he hide her impending death from her? She runs from the house to gather her thoughts and comes across a very bloody scene in the forest on her estate. Surrounded by dead and bloody rabbits is a young woman. Who is she? Why is she trespassing? A little bit more scene setting and fact finding leads us to understand that this is Alice Gray, the woman Fleetwood goes on to employ as her midwife. Of course!
We are then taken through the story of the Pendle witch trials and how Alice and Fleetwood are caught up in the action and danger of the situation. While the 'catching' and detention of witches continues in the background, Fleetwood becomes aware of another even more brutal betrayal by her husband. I won't go into too much detail about that as it's pretty much the only secret of the book, which promised so much in the blurb.
My expectations were half right. It was so incredibly slow that I had to force myself to pick it up in order to finish. I actually ended up reading it while in hospital as I knew I would be a captive audience and I didn't want to get to book club and not be able to talk about the whole thing. My overall impressions are quite cold. I am not a reader that needs a galloping plot to maintain interest, in fact I love a good slow narrative that builds a strong picture of a character. I don't particularly need to like a character but I like to feel as though I can 'see' them and understand their actions. The Familiars did not do this for me. I felt the pace plodded along, and I felt held at a distance from all of the characters. I felt little interest in Fleetwood and Alice wasn't particularly interesting to me either whereas the promise of witches, dark magic and 'familiars' seemed more mentioned in passing than anything concrete. A familiar is an animal that appears as an embodiment of the witch - it's an animal that is at one with the witch and has the ability to appear and harm others usually when there is a curse involved. This could have been explored deeper, especially considering this was the title of the book!
The state of the country and the witch trials were the key factors for me to continue , but even these seemed distant and were skirted round. This just missed something fundamental for me. I can certainly see how there have been comparisons with Jessie Burton's The Miniaturist, as the writing style is similar (but I didn't finish that!) so that should have given me a bit more warning.
I'm intrigued to see what my fellow Book Clubbers thought about it. I'm going to check out Goodreads and see what the general consensus is and if I'm in the minority.