cover image The Manningtree Witches

The Manningtree Witches

A.K. Blakemore. Catapult, $26 (308p) ISBN 978-1-64622-064-9

The inventive, sharp-witted debut from poet Blakemore (Humbert Summer) draws on the Puritan witch trials of Civil War England, when several women were executed for witchcraft in 1645 Manningtree. The book opens with 19-year-old Rebecca West’s tour-de-force description of her heavily snoring mother, the vulgar but undeniably formidable Beldam (a name, Rebecca notes, that “suits her, because it sounds wide and wicked”). Claustrophobic Manningtree is abuzz with the arrival of Matthew Hopkins, a mysterious, moneyed gentleman from Suffolk who later becomes the self-styled “Witchfinder General.” In lust with clerk John Edes, Rebecca barely notices Hopkins, but then a local boy becomes inexplicably ill, and the cause is determined to be “bewitchment,” with Rebecca’s mother fingered as a guilty party. The collective obsession with Satan begins to manifest in strange ways for Rebecca, permeating her dreams and waking life with explicitly sexual imagery as things progress with John and she herself comes under suspicion of witchcraft. While Blakemore’s commitment to historical verisimilitude may have kept this from reaching greater imaginative heights (chapters are prefaced by excerpts from the primary source documents to which they correspond), the author is a devastatingly good prose stylist. On the whole, Blakemore’s ambitious and fresh take on the era will delight readers. (Aug.)