The Witchfinder's Sister by Beth Underdown

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The Witchfinder's Sister by Beth Underdown

Category: Historical Fiction
Rating: 4.5/5
Reviewer: Ani Johnson
Reviewed by Ani Johnson
Summary: A historical fictin bringing us a real person and a fascinating view of 17th century ife, superstirion and fear of that knock on the door. Well researched, well written, well recommended!
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 368 Date: March 2017
Publisher: Viking
External links: Author's website
ISBN: 978-0241978030

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England 1645: Matthew Hopkins is good at his chosen career: seeking, testing and convicting those with the Devil in them. His sister, Alice, doesn't realise the full connotations of his actions until, widowed and pregnant, she returns home. Alice is grateful to be allowed to live under Matthew's roof but then watches his sinister finger of suspicion point in unexpected places. This is a man changed from the boy that Alice used to know. She never then realised that he'd be capable of killing hundreds of people and making her the Witchfinder's Sister.

This is British author Beth Underdown's debut novel and boy does it pack a punch in a 'can't believe it's a debut' kind of way.

Alice's era certainly seems to be in Beth's genes. Beth's great-uncle was David Underwood, one of the foremost authorities on 17th century British history. In fact it was when Beth was looking through David's papers that she came across mentions of the notorious East Anglian witchfinder, Matthew Hopkins and her imagination was ignited.

The result is a chilling insight into a community plagued by sinister interpretations of inherited knowledge and malicious mind-leaps when confronted by natural phenomena. Being in the vicinity of a dying cow is enough in Matthew's eyes (and many others in that time) to be blamed for bewitching/arranging its demise. It's therefore no wonder some put the total number of women accused and hanged by Hopkins to near 300. Most of what we know of him comes from his self-penned book of ideas and methods The Discovery of Witches, a title that rings bells for Deborah Harkness devotees.

Beth's choice of Alice, Matthew's sister, as narrator is a masterstroke that takes the story along a different path from previous works on similar subjects like Miller's The Crucible. Instead of hysterical girls' ideas, we follow someone with a sense and reasoning with which we identify. We also learn some of what it must have been like to go away leaving a loved brother and return to someone unrecognisable.

Alice finds herself very much in the middle, having grown up in the community now being picked apart. While relaying emotion that someone less talented than Beth would turn into melodrama, Alice comes to understand the breadth of her brother's activities along with the shocked realisation that she is also last chance mediator between condemned and condemner; one heck of a responsibility.

History is a little hazy about Matthew's eventual demise. The official story of TB is decorated by a series of whispered legends allowing Beth creative leeway which she utilises cleverly that fans of Karen Maitland will applaud. (No spoilers – I promise!)

Her cleverness doesn't stop at Matthew's witch hunting though. There are also some jaw-dropping revelations about Matthew's and Alice's childhoods as Alice learns how deceptive a child's perceptions can be.

In the end Matthew's life and Beth's novel leaves us with the aftermath of people's inability to take time to get to know what people are rather than judging on what we think they could be and that's a lesson that didn't stop being relevant 500 years ago.

(Huge thanks go to Viking for providing us with a copy for review.)

Further Reading: If you'd like to read more historical fiction using 17th century witch trials and beliefs as background, we urge you towards The Redemption of Alexander Seaton by Shona Maclean.

Buy The Witchfinder's Sister by Beth Underdown at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy The Witchfinder's Sister by Beth Underdown at Amazon.co.uk.


Buy The Witchfinder's Sister by Beth Underdown at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy The Witchfinder's Sister by Beth Underdown at Amazon.com.


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