Book Chat: ‘Wakenhyrst’ by Michelle Paver

I first read one of Michelle Paver’s novels seven years ago. I can’t remember how I came across Dark Matter but I could still describe the plot to you and I still vividly remember how it made me feel. I read it in a single sitting on a gloomy weekend day and it remains one of my absolute favourite ghost stories. Since then, I’ve kept an eye on the release of Paver’s novels and although none have quite lived up to that first experience, I’ve enjoyed every one of her ghostly offerings.

It will come as a surprise to nobody then that I loved Wakenhyrst. The story follows Maud as she grows up in Wake’s End, a crumbling old manor house (obviously) sitting on the edge of the Fens. We start the novel knowing that Maud’s father, Edmund, ends up in an institution painting images of demons, having apparently suffered a mental breakdown and killed a man in a horribly violent attack. Maud has remained resolutely silent on what really happened until, as the novel opens, she finds herself in dire financial straits and decides to sell her story to fund much needed repairs to Wake’s End.

Wakenhyrst alternates between Maud recounting her story in her own words and Edmund’s diary entries, which Maud is reading in an effort to get to know her father (at least initially…). I love a good diary entry in a novel anyway but the way they’re used in Wakenhyrst is just brilliant. We first see Edmund early on through Maud’s eyes as a child, then as she grows up and finds him increasingly difficult to live with, she hunts out his diary to try and learn more about him. Often if authors include diary entries, it’s to give readers an edge over characters; Paver uses them to put us firmly on Maud’s side and to let us share in her frustrations and fears. The characters are all so well drawn and so well balanced but Maud has a special place in my heart. By the end, I was so firmly attached to her that I cried as some of her secrets were revealed.

What I adore most about Paver’s writing is how she balances the hints at supernatural with the personal struggles of her characters. In Wakenhyrst‘s case, the uncertainty sits around Edmund and whether he is losing his mind or whether the phantoms that he sees are something darker and more real wafting in from the Fens. It also plays on the religious ideas of the early 20th century and the demons that so many believed might lurk around every corner, and naturally on the folklore surrounding the Fens. The atmosphere is damp and oppressive and looms over everything. Perfect for getting consumed by during the winter.

Death freezes everything. Whatever you did or didn’t do, whatever you said or left unsaid: none of that is ever going to change. You have no more chances to say sorry or make things right. No more chances for anything except regret

All of which isn’t to say that I think Wakenhyrst is perfect. If I’m being picky, it felt a little longer than it needed to be to me, a slight flaw that means I’ve given it 4.5 rather than 5 out of 5 stars. Some of the extracts from Edmund’s diaries run long and can feel repetitive. It works in places, particularly later on in the novel when it really highlights the tangled and dangerous patterns of Edmund’s mind but I was less keen early on when there’s a lot of religious fervour and general academic ramblings. The ending more than makes up for the occasional lull in pace but the lulls are there all the same.

Overall: Who doesn’t like a sinister story set in a crumbling old house with supernatural undertones and secrets galore in the winter?! I’m not sure that I’d go so far as to call it a ghost story but if you like ghost stories, I’m sure you’ll love this.  And if you do pick this up and love it, make sure you also keep an eye out for Dark Matter, because it is perfection and it makes me sad that it isn’t more popular. Two recommendations for the price of one!

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Date finished: 07 September 2018

Pictured edition published: by Head of Zeus in April 2019

Source: Received from the publisher via NetGalley