Wakenhyrst, by Michelle Paver

When it comes to mysteries, I’m torn between loving who done its and why done its. When the why done it comes with extensive background, untreated psychosis, witchy folklore, and a hugely atmospheric setting—as in Michelle Paver’s Wakenhyrst—sometimes the why done its edge out the who done it. Funny enough, this book begins with someone seeking the answer to that very question. I completely lost sight of that after just a few chapters into the novel as I learned more about the strange family dynamics of the Stearns and the amazing setting in one of the last original, undrained fens in Suffolk.

Maud had to grow up far too quickly. Her mother died after giving birth (after years of still births and miscarriages) when Maud was 12. Her father, Edmund, left the manor house, on the edge of a fen, and the care of her two younger brothers while he works on his academic work—tracking down and translating the work of a medieval female mystic. Maud does her best, but she’s only truly happy when she’s in the fen—away from her oppressive father. She has friends in the fen and the magpie she rescued. But we can’t fault Maud for trying to make a relationship with her father: she helps him by making clear copies of his translations, picking up his book orders from town, and keeping everything running on an even keel. Except, Maud also has access to Edmund’s diary, which reveals how deeply selfish and obsessed Edmund is with his own comfort and reputation. He is a truly awful person.

Wakenhyrst continues in two paths, as Maud finally gives up the family secrets and Edmund’s diary incriminates him further. You see, Edmund ended up spending most of his life in Broadmoor for committing a gruesome murder just before World War II. All Edmund said after being apprehended was to admit the murder, but say that he did nothing wrong. Even to the last, Edmund believes that he was completely right and justified in everything he did no matter what. To find out why, we really do need to take the long way around. That’s the only way to understand how Edmund changed from a presumably respectable historian to a man who believes in witches and devils. Maud might have even been able to deal with this, as long as she can escape to the fen when it all gets to be too much. Unfortunately for Maud, Edmund also wants to drain the fen, to get rid of its evils. My only quibble is that Wakenhyrst sometimes run into danger of being overstuffed. Maud and Edmund’s diary steal the show from each other, but they’re different enough that switching perspectives started to jar a bit. I wondered if I might have liked the book even more if I had just been in Maud’s story…or if I would have been more fascinated to watch Edmund drown in his psychosis.

The pace of Wakenhyrst speeds up as Edmund falls further into his delusions and Maud tries to work out a way to save her fen. Towards the end of the book, I remembered the man who came to Maud’s house at the beginning of the book. Knowing what was going to happen didn’t take away any of the tension. I didn’t know how Maud was going to survive her father’s murderous rage, let alone what triggered Edmund’s crime. The ending of the book is outstanding. And, even though the book is a touch overstuffed, I loved the amount of research that Paver put into the book and the originality of the plot and setting. Perhaps the clearest sign that I enjoyed the book is that I wished it was longer.

Wicken Lode in Wicken Fen, Cambridgeshire (Image via Geograph)

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