Book Review – Cunning Women by Elizabeth Lee

Pages: 382
Published: 22nd April 2021
Genre: Historical Fiction
Trigger warnings: Animal death/cruelty, suicide, allusions to rape, misogyny

Lancashire, 1620. Young Sarah Haworth and her family live as outcasts. They are ‘cunning folk’, feared by the local villagers by day, but called upon under cover of darkness for healing balms and spells.

Against the odds, love blossoms when Sarah meets Daniel, the local farmer’s son.

But when a new magistrate arrives to investigate a spate of strange deaths, his gaze inevitably turns to Sarah and her family. In a world where cunning women are forced into darkness by powerful men, can Sarah reckon with her fate to protect all she holds dear?

If you are looking for a book teeming with joy and happiness, then you will find precious little of that on offer here. However, while it may be filled with little besides gloom and characters battling through endless hardship, this is a compelling read which exudes atmosphere wherever you look and makes impressive use of dual narratives.

As a historical fiction, what this story does so well is make you feel as if you are truly inhabiting the time period in which it is set, something that is reflected in terms of the writing style and tone. Along with an exploration of how many women were once persecuted for supposedly being witches, the main theme is that of an intriguing forbidden romance and in that sense, it is largely character-driven.

In a Lancashire village in 1620, a young woman called Sarah lives at a small house in the woods with her family, who are impoverished and suspected of being unnatural. Her mother practices herbal remedies and is described by many locals as a ‘cunning woman’ and supposedly has the ability to place unwelcome curses on others, while her brother John is viewed with mistrust. They are outcasts, with support only from Seth, the village parson.

When Sarah comes across the farmer’s son Daniel and is allowed to pet his horse, the two strike an immediate connection. Despite knowing where she comes from, the kind-hearted Daniel develops romantic feelings for her and refuses the proposal of the blacksmith’s daughter Molly to continue seeing Sarah, who overcomes her initial wariness of him.

Eventually they come up with a plan so they can be together and earn better prospects for her family, but there are many obstacles in their way – not least the fact that Daniel’s father would not allow it if he knew Sarah’s real identity. With an officious new magistrate arriving in the village, Sarah and her family continue to suffer persecution, and the events that follow see the world close in on them.

It is a powerful story that becomes increasingly hard-hitting as you proceed further, as several of the characters are driven to extreme courses of action. The relationship between Sarah and Daniel is what keeps it interesting and it brings a perpetual sense of trepidation, especially as the strength of feeling against John and the rest of Sarah’s family intensifies.

The only serious criticism to make of the plot is its rather slow pace. As a result some aspects are less gripping than others, but generally it prospers with the help of a great deal of depth. As it moves forward you are really rooting for the two protagonists and it is also clever how the author often hints at Sarah and her mother possessing otherworldly powers without showing it outright.

In terms of narratives, the storytelling switches between Sarah in the first person and Daniel in the third person over alternate chapters. While Daniel’s chapters were more engaging and I certainly connected with those to a greater extent, reading from the perspective of Sarah really emphasised how alone and marginalised her family are, and there is a sense that she is always fighting for her very existence.

Sarah is a likeable character who you do gradually start to root for, and her burgeoning relationship with Daniel is quite adorable as they are so genuine, yet the anger that lurks within the village means that the chance of any future together continually hangs by a thread. For his part, Daniel is an incredibly endearing character with a very kind heart and – unlike many of his seventeenth century peers – is full of innocent acceptance.

His fellow farmhand Gabriel is entirely the opposite; a bullying thug who rarely misses a chance for a display of supposed masculinity. He carries a dangerous streak that eventually breaks free with disastrous consequences, and acts as the main villain despite regular mentions of the new magistrate. Meanwhile, Bett is likeable and resourceful, and Daniel’s father is a complex personality who veers between thoughtful and violent.

No character embodies the wildness of this book more than Sarah’s sister Anna, who is described mysteriously as if she is some kind of foundling. She is immature and vulnerable, representing a life so fragile in an unwelcoming place. John is all brawn and is written in such a way that makes him stand out as different. Then we have Molly and Phyllis, who also encounter their own type of tragedy.

The Lancashire setting is present throughout and the use of local words and dialect give the story a major sense of place. Although the time period is one thing, the way the atmosphere is conveyed truly transports you there among the dense woodland and murky grey skies. Every time you pick it up and resume reading, you are back there straight away.

There is a regular hint of mystique about the writing and tension brews as the stakes get higher for Sarah and Daniel. If there is anything to criticise, it can be a bit heavy and so it is hard to keep reading for a long period of time, but that does not really detract from the quality of the story. As for the ending, it is hard hitting and fits in with the tone of the plot.

Overall, a highly accomplished story that does not ripple with unbridled joy, yet it makes for a very arresting read. Even allowing for an occasionally slow pace, it has an amazing amount of atmosphere and the dual perspectives are all-encompassing, with the compelling relationship between Sarah and Daniel right at the centre of it.

Elizabeth Lee completed a creative writing scholarship with the Curtis Brown literary agency, and that ultimately enabled her to publish Cunning Women in 2021, which is her first novel. Her work has been selected for the Womentoring Project and Penguin’s WriteNow Live. She lives in Warwickshire.

A powerful read which had me fully immersed in the atmosphere of its setting and rooting for the two main characters.
My rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐

2 thoughts on “Book Review – Cunning Women by Elizabeth Lee

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s