East Anglia, 1645. Martha Hallybread, a midwife, healer, and servant, has lived peacefully for more than four decades in her beloved seaside village of Cleftwater. Having lost her voice as a child, Martha has not spoken a word in years. One autumn morning, a sinister newcomer appears in town. The witchfinder, Silas Makepeace, has been blazing a trail of destruction along the coast, and now has Cleftwater in his sights.
At times, Meyer’s dense prose and cataloging of bodily excretions — blood, phlegm, tears, urine and feces — tip into excess, and the book’s ending gestures toward a ditch-the-patriarchy resolution in a heavy-handed and arguably anachronistic way. But these are small disappointments in a novel whose protagonist I grew to love and whose concerns I found hard to shake in relation to both her times and our own.
Based on records of an actual period of witch hunts in East Anglia during the years of the English civil war, Meyer’s saga of prejudicial ignorance and the horrors that result from innuendo campaigns is replete with period and chilling atmospheric detail.
Immersive if murky ... Things get a little hazy in the third act, as Martha uses the poppet she inherited from her mother to put a hex on the witchfinder who’d accused her and Agnes, though Meyer remains coy as to whether or not the magic is real. Still, the author offers a stirring depiction of the selfishness, revenge, and fear behind the accusations.