Our NCW Book Club choice during April and May 2022 is The Manningtree Witches by AK Blakemore. We hope you’ll join us in reading the book, and that you’ll join the discussion in our Discord community or one of our discussion sessions taking place online and in person.
This beautifully written historical novel won the Desmond Elliott Prize and explores the witch trials of 17th century East Anglia with a humane grace. Sandra Newman said it was ‘not just the best debut novel I’ve read in years, it’s the best historical novel I’ve read since Wolf Hall’.
Here are some questions that you might like to consider or discuss with friends, family and fellow members of the Book Club as you make your way through the book.
You can watch an interview with AK Blakemore about the book here on the SavidgeReads YouTube channel.
We’d love to hear your thoughts on The Manningtree Witches, and any other questions that the book sparks for you. See our page here to find out about all the different ways you can get involved.
The Manningtree Witches can be purchased from our friends at The Book Hive with 20% off the cover price, and there’s still plenty of time to read along with us!
Reading historical fiction
The Manningtree Witches is the second historical fiction book that we have read in the NCW Book Club – but it’s very different to A Rising Man by Abir Mukherjee, which has a crime plot.
- What similarities and differences does The Manningtree Witches have to other books you have read?
- What characteristics define the historical fiction genre in your opinion?
Throughout the book, AK Blakemore includes fragments from archive materials, including testimonies from the witch trials of Manningtree. What is the effect of including these fragments in a work of historical fiction?
How does AK Blakemore give a sense of the historical context in the book?
- How do you think a balance between historical accuracy and creating an evocative fictional world has or can be achieved?
- In reading historical fiction, which for you is the most important factor: the facts or the fiction, and why?
Witches are sometimes associated with the conventions of the horror genre.
- Are there any aspects of the book that could be considered to be Horror?
- How does AK Blakemore invoke, subvert or deviate from our expectations of horror stories?
- In a novel about horrific historical injustices, what do you feel is or would be the difference between using a historical fiction genre and the horror genre to tell the story?
- Why do you think AK Blakemore has used genre in the way she has?
Character, structure and style
AK Blakemore is also a poet, and The Manningtree Witches has been praised for its “poetic” writing style.
- Do you agree with this assessment of its style, and why? Are there any parts of the text you can find that exemplify your view?
- What does it mean if a novel can be “poetic” – can poems also be “novelistic” or “fictional”? Where do you personally draw the line between these different forms?
- What does the writing style bring to the story, and why do you think AK Blakemore has chosen to write it in this way?
Much of the novel is written in the first-person narration of Rebecca West.
- What sense of Rebecca’s character are we given in the book? How would you describe her?
- What does choosing Rebecca to narrate parts of the story first-hand allow the author to do?
- Why has Rebecca been given a voice in this way, as opposed to another character or characters?
We also get a sense of many other characters through a close third-person narration, in places, including several chapters about Matthew Hopkins.
- How would you describe the other key characters of the community? What are their relationships to each other, and how do these help to drive the story?
- What changes do the characters go through during the novel, and how are these expressed on the page?
- Why has AK Blakemore chosen to write the other characters in the third-person? What effect does this have on our relationship to them?
How did you feel while reading the novel when the outcomes of the East Anglian witch trials are commonly known?
- Were you able to read the novel with a sense of curiosity and openness, or did your background knowledge give a sense of foreboding?
- What surprised you about the story, and how does AK Blakemore structure the book to give a sense of tension, suspense or surprise?
- What do you think the challenges and opportunities of writing about well-known historical events might be for the writer of fiction?
Did these questions spark a reaction or an idea? Want to discuss it further? Join us for one of our book club meet-ups this month!