Published: 7th February 2019
Started reading: July 18
Finished reading: August 3
Trigger warning: Child death
This was a buddy read with my friend Pauliina @ The Bookaholic Dreamer. We had lots of thoughtful and fun in-depth discussions during the course of reading the book. Thank you so much, Pauliina!
Lancashire, 1612. Fleetwood Shuttleworth is 17-years-old, married and pregnant for the fourth time. But as mistress of Gawthorpe Hall, she still has no living child, and her husband Richard is an anxious for an heir. When Fleetwood finds a letter she isn’t supposed to read from the doctor who delivered her third stillbirth, she is dealt the crushing blow that she will not survive another pregnancy.
Then she crosses paths by chance with Alice Gray, a young midwife. Alice promises to help her give birth to a healthy baby and to prove the physician wrong.
As Alice is drawn into the witchcraft accusations that are sweeping the north-west, Fleetwood risks everything by trying to help her. But is there more to Alice than meets the eye?
Soon the two women’s lives will become inextricably bound together as the legendary Pendle witch trials approach, and Fleetwood’s stomach continues to grow. Time is running out, and both of their lives are at stake.
Only they know the truth.
Only they can save each other.
Back in May I was very lucky to meet Stacey Halls at a Q&A event that formed part of a literary festival. She was articulate, insightful, and on the whole just an extremely nice person. So, when I finally started reading my signed copy of The Familiars, I really wanted to love it.
And for a very considerable part of the book, I did. It contained all of the components for a truly outstanding read: a compelling protagonist; a permanent sense of atmosphere; brilliantly realised settings, and a page-turning quality. Not to mention a startlingly beautiful cover. It was all going so well, but then sadly came an ending that left me feeling quite disappointed.
The plot centres around the Pendle witch trials of 1612, where ten women were put to death after being accused of witchcraft. Fleetwood Shuttleworth is the mistress of Gawthorpe Hall. Pregnant and having seen a letter that states she will die in childbirth, she is out riding when she encounters a mysterious young woman called Alice.
They soon develop a close understanding and companionship, and Fleetwood appoints Alice as her midwife. However, Alice is soon implicated in the ongoing witch trials, and as Fleetwood uncovers revelations about her own life and household, she will go to any lengths to protect her.
The entire book is told from Fleetwood’s point of view in the first-person past tense. She is determined and daring, but also with a sense of vulnerability that makes her a hugely likeable and relatable character, perhaps similar in a way to Nella from The Miniaturist. The only criticism I have with her POV is that her motives and thought processes did not always come across very clearly in the writing.
For me, the absolute highlight of this book was the burgeoning friendship and bond between Fleetwood and Alice. It was a joy to read, as they were both innocent yet complex characters with a surprising amount in common. Alice was very mysterious, and carried such intrigue throughout the story. My only wish is that she could have been explored in slightly more depth by the end.
There were a lot of other characters, but they were relatively well developed. Roger in particular carried a lot of menace and a palpable thirst for power and favour, while Fleetwood’s husband Richard was fascinating and frustrating in equal measure due to his many flaws. And then there was Jennet Device, a child who was made to seem fairly evil…
One of the other things that made this book so immersive was the setting. Gawthorpe Hall and its surrounding estate are captured with a level of detail and atmosphere that simply emanates from the pages. This sense of realism helped me engage with the story even more and it brought the more tense moments into a sharper focus.
The writing style was not what I would usually associate with historical fiction. Several passages from Fleetwood’s POV and indeed some of the dialogue had a more modern feel about it. But I did not have a problem with that! If anything, it possibly helped me connect with the book, and with Fleetwood, even more.
It was a real shame, but where The Familiars really did fail to deliver was the ending. Everything was building up to a very tense and captivating conclusion, but instead it was underwhelming; a kind of anti-climax with some questions left either unanswered or deliberately ambiguous. For me, the story which had been so good up until the last 50 pages, deserved better.
On a more positive note, the historical context was another thing that made the book so interesting for me. Many of the characters – including Fleetwood herself – are inspired by real people, and I have become really keen to learn more about the Pendle witch trials and other events that happened around the time. Stacey clearly did extensive research and that comes through impressively on the page.
Overall, this was a book that was fantastic for so long despite the occasional flaw. There were times where I just spent hours reading it and I could not put it down. There is a whole list of positive aspects, but the untapped mystery of Alice and a disappointing ending has made it a little bittersweet.
Although she now lives in London, Stacey Halls was born and raised in the town of Rossendale in Lancashire, just a short distance from Pendle and Gawthorpe Hall.
She has written for several publications including the Independent and Fabulous magazine, where she is the Deputy Chief Sub-Editor. The Familiars is her debut novel.
There were so many things I liked about this book, and it was a mostly engrossing read. The ending was, however, a disappointment.
My rating: ⭐⭐⭐.5