The Familiars by Stacey Halls
3 out of 5 stars
The Familiars is a historical novel about a young married noblewoman, Fleetwood Shuttleworth, who has suffered from several miscarriages and is now pregnant again. She meets a midwife named Alice Grey who helps her through her difficult pregnancy. Only problem is that Alice Grey is accused of witchcraft at a time when witchcraft trials were taking place and ‘witches’ were put to death for their ‘crimes’.
The author excels at creating a gothic atmosphere that is oppressive and tense while slowly developing the characters and revealing what is at stake for the protagonist Fleetwood and her new friend, Alice.
I thoroughly enjoyed the atmosphere that the author brought to life and enjoyed the slow but tense unraveling of the story, piece by piece.
The main issue that I had with the book was the protagonist, Fleetwood Shuttleworth (apparently a real person who lived in Lancashire at the time the novel takes place). Fleetwood had the personality of a wet noodle. Though she grows and matures as a person by the end of the novel, it is not enough for me to salvage her as a character. I think that is the result of the first person narration. One one hand, the first person narration was great because we, the audience, learn what is going on at the same time as Fleetwood does but on the other hand, she was so childlike and naive that it was frustrating being in her mind.
I think the author was going for historical accuracy by making her complacent and dependant on the will of her husband but I think she took it a bit too far and made Fleetwood more foolish than she needed to be. I think Fleetwood’s naiveté was also used as a tool to add to the reveal of what is going on but at times it was hard to bear her lack of awareness.
For example, she sticks her foot in her mouth by assuming that Alice Grey, who is clearly dressed as a peasant, can read. The story takes place during 1612. Most men of peasant stock were not literate during that time, never mind women who had even fewer rights. Even women of nobility, such as Fleetwood, were only somewhat literate and it was common knowledge that peasants were illiterate (the nobility partly justified their ruling over the peasants/serfs on the basis that they were intellectually superior so even if Fleetwood did not share that opinion, she knew about it) so her starting position when meeting someone dressed in rags would never be that this person could read. That is just one example of Fleetwood being made dumber than she needed to be so that she fumbles along the way and doesn’t learn what is going on under her nose until it is literally in front of her face.
To be honest, I found Fleetwood so frustratingly stupid that I almost DNF’d the book. The only reason I didn’t was because I was intrigued just enough to keep going. In the end, I’m glad that I finished the book because I enjoyed the unraveling of the mystery and Fleetwood’s growth as a character. I think the book would have been better overall if Fleetwood started off as a stronger (but still flawed) character and grew from there but there was enough going on to keep me interested regardless.
I received a digital review copy from Netgalley in exchange for an honest review but I ended up listening to the finished copy as an audiobook so I am reviewing the finished copy instead of the uncorrected proof.