1620s. Lancashire. Away from the village lies a small hamlet, abandoned since the Plague, where only one family dwell amongst its ruins. Young Sarah Haworth, her mother, brother and little sister Annie are a family of outcasts by day and the recipients of visitors by night. They are cunning folk, the villagers will always need them, quick with a healing balm or more, should your needs require. They can keep secrets too, because no one would believe them anyway.
When Sarah spies a young man taming a wild horse, she risks being caught to watch him calm the animal. And when Daniel sees Sarah he does not just see a strange, dirty thing, he sees her for who she really is, a strong creature about to come into her own. But can something as fragile as love blossom between these two in such a place as this?
And when a new magistrate arrives to rid out those behind the strange ends that keep befalling the villagers, he has his eye on one family alone. And a torch in his hand.
Length: 370 pages
Content warnings: sexual assault, suicide
I received a free copy of this book from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. This does not impact on my opinions.
Cunning Women is about witches, and I love reading about witches. So it wasn’t a hard decision to pick this book up. I was expecting something like The Familiars by Stacey Halls. In some ways Cunning Women does remind of that historical take on witches, yet in others it’s very different.
Sarah Haworth and her family are witches. They are labelled as such by the villagers and Lee shows in the book that it is true. The family are as accused. And yet Lee humanises them. She shows the reader that, though they have power, they are also people with feelings and the ability to suffer.
Whilst reading Cunning Women, I did have some reservations about the way Lee imagines witches in this historical setting. By giving the women actual witchy powers, I felt that she takes away from the realities of why women were persecuted in the 17th century. I felt uncomfortable with the way she seems to be saying that witches were guilty as accused? I think if Cunning Women hadn’t felt realistic in every other way, I wouldn’t have come away from the book feeling like this.
From a snippet of an interview with Lee that I dropped across, I understand that she meant the Haworth family’s magic to represent female power. After reading this, and looking at it this way, I do feel better about the way witches are represented in this book. Though I still feel uneasy about the insinuation that they are in fact serving the devil.
As I mentioned earlier, Lee does show the Haworths as human beings, as people who are just the same as everyone else in every other way. The family are living in extreme poverty, as outcasts from village life. And the boy in the family unable to get work because of the reputation of the family. This makes the story complex, in a way that gives me mixed feelings about it. And perhaps that’s how Lee intended me to feel.
Lee contrasts Sarah’s perspective, and her family’s extreme poverty, with that of Daniel, the son of a farmer, who is well-fed and seemingly has everything Sarah’s family doesn’t. Lee uses his character to show the difficulties men faced in this period too, with the expectation to ‘be a man’ and live up to the image expected of him in this society. So through this dual perspective, we see two sides of this society. We also see how difficult it is for the pair to bridge the gap between them.
I definitely enjoyed the relationship between Daniel and Sarah, the hope that they have for a better life, and the genuine feelings they have for one another. Though I felt like Daniel’s feelings for Sarah develop a bit too quickly. I’m not sure if this was intentional though because of the ideas around witches ‘bewitching’ men into desiring them.
The relationship is a tender one though. And, for me, some of the best parts of the book are the scenes featuring them together. There are moments when Lee is writing them falling in love when her writing really shines, and she writes some beautiful descriptions of their time together.
The writing in the rest of the book, though, is a bit hit and miss. She writes mostly in quite a straightforward way, with little description and scene-setting. Her dialogue feels authentic to the time, though I’m not an expert on the time period. But there are points where her writing (and dialogue) do feel awkward. I like a simple writing style, but there are times when I would have liked a bit more description, and perhaps to have delved deeper into the characters minds.
Lee tells the two different perspectives in two different points of view. She writes Sarah’s sections in first-person present tense, whilst she writes Daniel’s in third-person past tense. And I found this switch to be a bit jarring at times. I think alternating between first and third person does work when done well, but the tense change was too much for me. I’m not sure what Lee was trying to achieve stylistically, but it didn’t work.
Thematically, as I said, Cunning Women is about women’s power. And the way women are perceived in the world based on that power. There is a strange contrast later in the novel when the villagers perceive Sarah as something other than the poor daughter of the cursed Haworth family. And Lee repeatedly draws the reader to this contrast: this idea that you can be the same person you were yesterday but be dressed differently, present to the world differently, and you are treated differently. Sarah for a while hides who she ‘really is’, as she sees it, and this means that she is treated as a different person. I think that’s a really interesting idea that I wish Lee had delved further into.
Overall, Cunning Women fell just short of the mark for me. I felt like it merely skimmed the surface of the characters’ minds. The characterisation didn’t feel deep and well-rounded, and the description was lacking. I felt like it would have been a much better book if it had been longer. I wish Lee had taken her time building an atmosphere and building the characters into more well-rounded people. Though I didn’t like the way Lee portrayed witchcraft, I understand what she was trying to do. I have mixed feelings about it, though it is a book that has made me think about why I dislike the portrayal of witches in this way. So for that I would recommend it. I would also recommend it to fans of The Familiars. It’s not as good as that book, but it’s along very similar lines.