As a little kid, my idea of a witch was someone with a hooked nose, wild hair and a pointy hat, who travels on a broomstick and who needs to be feared. I am not sure where I learnt it from, but that was it. Growing up, I heard of the Salem’s witch trails and I did what most curious people do – refer to Wikipedia. At this point, I clearly remember thinking ‘well this sounds a bit unfair’. Of late, that thought seems to have been reinforced a lot, and I actively seek out books or articles to educate myself, so when I was sent a review copy for Cunning Women and saw the blurb say it is set against the background of the Pendle Witch Trails, I knew I had to push this up my priority list.
Set in England in the 1600s, in a plague Hamlet, there lives a family of cunning folk – Sarah Haworth, her mother, her sister and her brother. The villagers from nearby villages use them for cures, but otherwise shun them. It is a cursed life that they lead, and when Sarah meets Daniel – the son of a local farmer, they find themselves in a strange predicament. Can something as fragile as love get a chance in a volatile time like this?
What I loved
This is not only a story of forbidden love, but also of a woman discovering and embracing her inner wild and coming onto her own.
The narrative is even paced. Characters are very well written. Character descriptions are excellent and the visuals created by Elizabeth Lee transports you to a time long gone by, a tumultuous period of religion, superstitions and witch trails.
You’ll get deeply involved with the characters, feeling their fury, fear and love. And feeling for their love, loss, victories and heartbreak.
What could have been better
I’d have loved to read a bit more Sarah’s mother and her backstory, moreso because it was constantly mentioned across the book with little context.
Additionally, to me, the idea of people being unable to recognise Sarah, and Sarah being able to easily ‘blend in’ with the villagers, just because of a change in her dressing seemed a teeny bit far fetched. The author however does touch upon it, so perhaps the creative liberty hasn’t been taken too far. This bit about Sarah looking like a different person is crucial to the plot, so I am eager to see how it is received by readers.
At a glance, Cunning Women is a story of forbidden love during a tumultuous time in history. However, it carries a subliminal message – one that urges us to examine and question the injustice of the witch trails and the unfairness with which people, especially women who didn’t conform to the norms, were hunted down and punished.
Elizabeth Lee, by conjuring the wild beautiful Sarah, also compels us to examine and embrace our own inner wild.
A big thanks to Penguin and Netgalley for sending me an Advanced Readers Copy. Cunning Women is Elizabeth Lee’s debut novel releasing on 22/04/2021 and can be purchased from Waterstones, Amazon or any local book store.
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