Reviewing Beth Underdown’s The Witchfinder’s Sister

The number of women my brother Matthew killed, so far as I can reckon it, is one hundred and six…

That was all I needed to read to be gripped by Beth Underdown’s debut The Witchfinder’s Sister. When Alice Hopkins’ husband dies in a tragic accident, she returns to the small Essex town of Manningtree, where her brother Matthew still lives but home is no longer a place of safety. It’s 1645 – Matthew has changed and has a new obsession. There are rumours of witchcraft in the town and whisperings of a book with women’s names in it.

It has been a long time since I last read historical fiction and The Witchfinder’s Sister reminded me both of why I don’t read the genre very much and why I love the genre. Let me start with the negative – and please bear in mind these are negatives to the genre itself and not specific to this book.

  • Women had little to no agency and are often the victim;
  • There is no diversity.

After a while it gets wearing to read historical fiction titles and as this is set in 1645 about witch hunting in Essex I knew it would fall into both categories. However there were so many things about The Witchfinder’s Sister which helped me to move on from these bug-bears of mine.

Firstly the plot. As I said at the beginning of this post that one line grabbed me. Why has Matthew killed one hundred and six women and gotten away with it? Who is the sister and what has she got to do with it all? As the story unfolds we learn the exact horror of everything Matthew has done and the part Alice has to play – the second half of The Witchfinder’s Sister is particularly harrowing. It also helped that by the end of the book I really liked Alice. She was involved enough and yet separate enough from the events happening that we could get the whole picture. I understood her motivations, her jealousies, and her will to survive.

As much as these things were amazing and helped me to fall in love with the book, it was the amount of research Beth Underdown did which truly impressed me. And it also broke my heart. Alice is fictional but her brother isn’t and neither were the witch trials both here and in America. The women Matthew persecuted were heartbroken at the loss of a child, suffering from a mental illness, or just plain greedy. Everything a woman did which didn’t fit into subservient or quiet was under suspicion and knowing how meticulously Beth researched this made it all the more real.

This happened and these women were murdered because of being even the slightest bit different. Until I read The Witchfinder’s Sister I always associated witch trials with Salem and the horrific things which happened there. Matthew was torturing, abusing, and murdering women before Salem became notorious, and I had no idea.

Even though I started reading with reservations, it didn’t take me long to love The Witchfinder’s Sister and I gave it to my Mum as soon as I finished (she is reading it now!). If you like well researched, brilliantly plotted and written historical fiction then I highly recommend this wonderful debut.

The Witchfinder’s Sister by Beth Underdown is published by Viking and will be available from all good and evil bookshops on the 2nd of March 2017.

I was given a free copy via twitter and this has not influenced this honest review. my opinions or thoughts.

I am part of the blog tour for this book – have a look at who else is taking part!

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