Widdershins by Helen Steadman

Review published on June 28, 2017.

Two lives converge. John Sharpe, in Scotland, beaten and brutalised by his father, brainwashed by his sermonising uncle, is now an embittered witch-finder on a mission. Jane Chandler, in the north east of England, is her mother’s apprentice, learning to be a herbalist and midwife.

In a simmering atmosphere of superstition and paranoia, misogyny is pervasive: even to ease the labour pains of the daughters of Eve is to set your face against the will of God. It doesn’t take much to find yourself in the dock in 1650s Newcastle and being publicly ‘witch-pricked’ in painful places. “It’s sin enough to be a woman,” observes Jane’s mother wryly.

The structure of Widdershins is interesting: John and Jane’s narratives alternate throughout. Giving a voice to John makes his bigotry understandable, even inevitable, while Jane is a trusting innocent, caught up in events beyond her control and understanding.

It’s a slow-burner of a book, with the crisis occurring in the last few chapters, and then ending abruptly with a cliff-hanger. I did feel some frustration at that point, and felt I wanted to ‘shunt’ the plot forward, have the two protagonists meet earlier, and save the final pages for the resolution of Jane’s personal crisis.

Anyone drawn to dystopian fiction will enjoy this historical dystopia, based on true events and roughly contemporaneous with Witch-finder General Matthew Hopkins’s notorious campaign of persecution in East Anglia.

A real bonus of the book is that the author knows her herbs and folklore, and I enjoyed the references to the medicinal properties of plants. There is also wonderful period detail about country crafts, the village way of life, dialect words, primitive obstetrics…all in all, she creates a credible lost rural world, which while never idealised contrasts startlingly with the noise and stench that Jane and her mother Annie encounter on their fatal trip to Newcastle.

In summary: an impressive debut.

Margaret Cain 4/4

Widdershins by Helen Steadman
Impress Books 9781911293040 pbk Jul 2017

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