The National Centre for Writing is delighted to announce that A. K. Blakemore’s The Manningtree Witches is the winner of the Desmond Elliott Prize 2021.

The historical fiction, praised by judges as ‘clever and unexpected’, is chosen as the best first novel across the UK and Ireland in 2021 from a strong shortlist which also featured little scratch by Rebecca Watson and The Liar’s Dictionary by Eley Williams.

In addition to the £10,000 prize money, Blakemore will receive a tailored year-round platform of support and mentorship from the NCW, which runs the Desmond Elliott Prize as part of its Early Career Awards portfolio.

The Manningtree Witches

England, 1643. Parliament is battling the King; the war between the Roundheads and the Cavaliers rages. Puritanical fervour has gripped the nation, and the hot terror of damnation burns black in every shadow.

In Manningtree, depleted of men since the wars began, the women are left to their own devices. At the margins of this diminished community are those who are barely tolerated by the affluent villagers – the old, the poor, the unmarried, the sharp-tongued. Rebecca West, daughter of the formidable Beldam West, fatherless and husbandless, chafes against the drudgery of her days, livened only by her infatuation with the clerk John Edes. But then newcomer Matthew Hopkins takes over the Thorn Inn and begins to ask questions about the women of the margins. When a child falls ill with a fever and starts to rave about covens and pacts, the questions take on a bladed edge.

The Manningtree Witches plunges its readers into the fever and menace of the English witch trials, where suspicion, mistrust and betrayal ran amok as the power of men went unchecked and the integrity of women went undefended. It is a visceral, thrilling book that announces a bold new talent.

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What the judges said

‘The Manningtree Witches is a stunning achievement. Blakemore takes limited historical detail and, with what seems like effortless grace and imagination, crafts a breathing, complex world full of wrenchingly human characters, and tells us their stories in language that bears endless rereading, so clever and unexpected and pleasurable it is.’ – Lisa McInerney, chair of judges for the Desmond Elliott Prize 2021

‘Blakemore takes limited historical detail and, with what seems like effortless grace and imagination, crafts a breathing, complex world full of wrenchingly human characters.’ – Lisa McInerney

Further praise for The Manningtree Witches

Dark, original, unsettling, and crackling with fierce and visceral life, The Manningtree Witches heralds the birth of an utterly vital new voice in fiction. A.K. Blakemore makes the past breathe, and allows it, with dazzling candour, to speak hotly to the complicated reality of our own moment’ – Rebecca Tamás

I loved this riveting, appalling, addictive debut. Blakemore captures the shame of poverty and social neglect unforgettably, and the alluring threat of women left alone together, in a novel which vividly immerses the reader in the world of those who history has tried to render mute’ – Megan Nolan

‘A.K. Blakemore’s debut is a riveting, unsettling story of menace, corruption, and muck, rendered in limber, evocative prose that delights and surprises at every turn. Its heroine wants too much, and too often, and the wrong thing-which is quite a bit more dangerous than usual, considering this is 17th century England and the Witchfinder General has just come to town. Based on actual events, but told in a deliciously brazen voice, this novel reads like Fleabag meets Hilary Mantel: bawdy, bewitching, weird, and wise. I loved every minute, and even when I was horrified, I didn’t want to look away’ – Emily Temple, author of, The Lightness

About A.K. Blakemore

(c) Sophie Davidson

A. K. Blakemore is the author of two full-length collections of poetry: Humbert Summer (Eyewear, 2015) and Fondue (Offord Road Books, 2018), which was awarded the 2019 Ledbury Forte Prize for Best Second Collection. She has also translated the work of Sichuanese poet Yu Yoyo (My Tenantless Body, Poetry Translation Centre, 2019). Her poetry and prose writing has been widely published and anthologised, appearing in the The London Review of BooksPoetryPoetry Review and The White Review, among others.