#WritersReview: Wakenhyrst

Cover of Wakenhyrst shows a magpie and bloodspots

Wakenhyrst written by Michelle Paver

published by Head of Zeus in April 2019

368 pages in hardback

HB jacket and interior art by Stephen McNally.


murder, marshes and malevolence


Summary from author’s own website

In Edwardian Suffolk, a manor house stands alone in a lost corner of the Fens: a glinting wilderness of water whose whispering reeds guard ancient secrets. Maud is a lonely child growing up without a mother, ruled by her repressive father.

When he finds a painted medieval devil in a graveyard, unhallowed forces are awakened.

Maud’s battle has begun.

She must survive a world haunted by witchcraft, the age-old legends of her beloved fen – and the even more nightmarish demons of her father’s past.

One reader’s view:

If you have read either Michelle Paver’s Dark Matter or Thin Air – you will know she is a mistress of creeping malevolence.The disturbances and unsettling details build on each other to create dreadful/delicious tension.

In both these earlier works, each place has an active presence: Arctic wastes; snowbound mountains, and this time, mysterious fenland. These are both convincing portrayals of particular locations, and creators of the uneasy atmosphere.

Wakenhyrst is a decidedly Gothic take on the ‘whydunit’: we know from the start what Maud’s father did, but the reasons for such a dreadful crime still lurk in the swampy past. Fragments of this horrifying puzzle emerge like broken glass in an excavation, or a wall-painting from protecting whitewash. Uncertainty and supposition linger to the end.

Some readers will know Michelle Paver for many novels set in prehistory. This work largely inhabits the Victorian & Edwardian era, but includes medieval elements and an early foray into the ’60s. Each is handled with skill, and her love of conveying the past shines through without unnecessary glare.That said, I’d recommend it for experienced readers as the story is not laid out chronologically.

Similarly, there’s violence and a long powerful building-up of threat. Not for the sensitive – as you might expect from something with such a strong folk horror vibe. Indeed, it could well be the basis for a TV miniseries with music by The Unthanks and probably involving Mark Gatiss.

There’s a strong feminist strand to Wakenhyrst and I felt Maud had kinship with Faith in Frances Hardinge’s The Lie Tree. So I was gratified to see Wakenhyrst recommended for YA readers in The Big Issue. They are distinctly different works, but growth from child to young woman is powerfully shown in both.

Highly recommended for those with a taste for the dark.

Paperback cover

Comments from a Writer and Editor (spoiler alert)

Look out for –

  • a complex mix of third person, epistolary and other ‘extracts’ which invites the reader to investigate
  • shifts in time deftly handled
  • convincing tone in the different forms of writing – yet the tension is maintained
  • the natural world and folklore used with care and precision
  • expectations are set up beautifully – but the end music may not be what you’d expect . . .

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