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’s 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…
At the time of writing this review Goodreads have rated this as 4.14 out of 5
4th April 2019 aka TOMORROW by Head of Zeus
Like a witch’s lair in a fairytale the ancient manor house crouches in its tangled garden. I can’t take my eyes off the ivy-choked window above the front door. It was from that window in 1913 that 16 year old Maud Stearne watched her father set off down the steps with an ice-pick, a geological hammer – and murder in his heart.
I received a copy of this ARC from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.
Before I begin I must confess – I clearly have a thing for historical fiction. Didn’t think I ever would do but I do. So I guess there’s that. We discover something new about ourselves each week.
The other thing I must confess (and this I’ve known for a while now) is that I love, love, love when books tells us the ending (or half the ending) and then the story builds up towards it. If done properly this can be such a hook as people (me) feed desperately on anticipation and try to work out exactly how the story will unfold.
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again – the story is in the journey.
We begin Wakenhyrst in 1966 knowing that Maud’s father, Edmund has been detained in an asylum for years. We are told that one summer day he butchered the first person he saw while Maud looked on. We (the reader) don’t know who he killed and we (the reader but also the other characters) don’t know why he killed them and in such a horrible manner.
But Maud is here to tell us. Her home is in a state of disrepair and so, as an old woman, she is finally selling her story. What unfurls is Maud’s life told by her and interspersed with extracts from her father’s diary which helps paint a picture of what he was like but also what life must have been like living with him.
Remember when I said this about books where you know the ending – If done properly this can be such a hook as people (me) feed desperately on anticipation and try to work out exactly how the story will unfold.
So was it done properly? Oh yes, I like to think so.
But look – if you’re after the gothic horror/ gothic ghost story that marketing seem to be painting this story as then you’re not going to get it.
This is more a tale of what has gone wrong in a young woman’s fraught life. Now Maud is such a riveting character which is a good thing as this story about her life is told through her eyes.
Maud is an intelligent, repressed child who remains an intelligent, repressed young woman but as she grows so does her sense of injustice at the way the world treats certain people. As this sense of injustice grows so does her anger and she uses her anger and intelligence to survive life as best she can.
As Maud navigates these paths of life, simultaneously her father is navigating some completely different paths. When you read her father’s diary entries (entries Maud has also read) you see the depth of what a hateful, privileged, misogynist he truly is.
It’s also via these diary entries that we see his descent into madness.
Now we never fully understand exactly what causes this. Is it mental illness exacerbated by the constant consumption of religious material depicting hell? Is it religious fanaticism taken far too far? Is someone gas-lighting him? Is there something truly disturbing out there in the fen? Or is it a combination of all those things?
Oddly the reason(s) why Edmund goes insane isn’t the most riveting part. In fact, the diary entries which document his thoughts and eventually his fears are the least interesting bit about this story. He is a vile character that we (and Maud) rightfully hate but while his diary gives us insights into his mind and eventually his story crosses path with Maud’s I don’t want to spend a lot of time swimming in his thoughts.
I’m not interested in Edmund. His act of violent murder is the crescendo to which Maud’s traumatic youth builds but Maud’s ‘coming of age’ story is more interesting. She grieves her mother, falls in love, makes an enemy of a maid, renounces god and finds a spiritual home in the fen with its dark history and oppressive atmosphere.
For others the fen is a place of untamed, ungodly wildness whereas for Maud its an extension of her soul and so we feel that outpouring of love across the page.
The setting and description of the time Maud lives is one of the best bits of this book. I can truly picture the wetlands and the house, covered in ivy and slowly rotting while villagers are a mix of local superstition and religious fervor.
It’s sad but the close-mindedness of the time and the oppression that Maud experiences is portrayed just as thickly as the descriptions of the fen.
The writer has deftly crafted a story that slowly builds towards a rotten event. You know its coming but you don’t exactly know what takes place. You guess as you go and hope for the best but it’s like watching a train crash where you can see that neither train is going to be able to swerve.
Reading about Edmund and Maud is watching that happen in slow, painstaking motion.
If you want creepy, gothic horror then Wakenhyrst is not it. If you want a slow burn, painful, historical piece about an intelligent and angry teenage girl desperately trying to outrun her fate within society than this is it.
I know that last sentence makes the book sound terrible but this truly isn’t. It’s well written and thought provoking, it’s sad and horrific with moments of touching kindness that are far too few.
I love Maud.
We should all love Maud.