The story in The Familiars is irresistible right from the very first lines, which set my heart racing along with the hurried footsteps of the main character, Fleetwood Shuttleworth.
It’s 1612 and this frightened 17-year-old – newlywed and newly pregnant, once more, after three traumatic miscarriages – has just discovered that carrying another baby is placing her very life in peril, but she can’t confide in anyone. Her seemingly devoted husband, Richard, has kept that information from her and her relationship with her mother is strained. Fleetwood is the mistress of Gawthorpe Hall, a large estate in the North of England – all the wealth that surrounds her, however, won’t ease the loneliness she’s felt all her life or give her what she desires the most: a safe birth and a healthy baby in the cradle.
With this pregnancy seemingly heading towards another miscarriage, a chance encounter in the woods with a young woman called Alice Gray – a midwife – appears to be the lifeline she’s so desperately been searching for. But this is only the beginning of her story, whose many twists and turns will make Fleetwood question everything and everyone she holds dear. It’s fascinating to observe how her relationships change and which are strong enough to stand up to such scrutiny. In an atmosphere saturated with superstition and suspicion, Fleetwood must decide who to trust and who to forgive.
As she sets out to dig for the truth, her strength of character is often tested and, amongst many hurdles, she also must fight the desire to choose the enticing option of retreating back into the safety of her gilded cage. The characters in this book are so vivid that it’s impossible not to feel involved in their struggles – I found myself gasping aloud on quite a few occasions – and the beautiful descriptions of their surroundings enhance such an atmospheric tale.
This is a story of female friendship and solidarity: against a backdrop of political machinations hellbent on persecuting women in their region by accusing them of witchcraft, Fleetwood and Alice are bound together by a desire to survive against the odds. There is an urgency pulsating through the lines of this story that kept me glued to this book: both women, in their own way, are facing a death sentence, which is coming closer with each day that passes. In such desperate circumstances, it’s up to Fleetwood – used to be the shy and unquestioning wife – to overcome her insecurities and grow into a strong-willed woman who will continue ‘acting outside the boundaries of womanliness, of wifeliness’.
Such a grim and brutal time in history shows us the atrocities that a thirst for power will lead some individuals to perpetrate, but the story focuses on those who refuse to look the other way, and instead decide to fight back – definitely an uplifting message for dark times.