by Piyali C.
One of my favorite quotes about friendship is the famous one by C.S Lewis: “Friendship is born at that moment when one person says to another: ‘What? You too! I thought I was the only one.” My friendship began with my library colleague who introduced me to Stacey Halls in the same way. We bonded over Daphne Du Maurier, our mutual love for Jane Austen, historical fiction, and literary fiction. So, when she brought The Familiars by Stacey Halls to my desk and said, “Here read this. I know you will like it,” I knew I should drop everything and read it. I did not like it – I loved it.
The Familiars is a story of two women in early seventeenth century England, both fighting for survival. Mistress Fleetwood Shuttleworth is determined not to lose her fourth baby like the ones before and Alice Gray needs to prove she is not a witch during the infamous Pendle Hill witch trial of 1612. Alice is a skilled midwife with extensive knowledge of herbs, and Fleetwood needs her help to save her unborn baby as well as her own life. When Alice is accused of witchcraft and imprisoned, Fleetwood is ready to go to any lengths to prove her innocence. Not only is the story superbly written and well-paced, it shows tremendous character development of the protagonist. One may wonder if all the steps taken by Fleetwood in her quest to free Alice are plausible given the time period, but I embraced her actions wholeheartedly and willed her on to succeed.
In Mrs. England, Norland Institute graduate Ruby May is looking for a fresh start after the family she worked for emigrates to United States. Although the Radlett family would dearly love their Nurse May to travel with them to America, she is unable to do so for a reason undisclosed at the beginning of the story. In 1904 women from the upper echelon in England are completely dependent on nurses for the care of their children, preferably from the prestigious Norland Institute. Nurse May gets her second assignment without much delay. However, she will have to travel to cold, foggy West Yorkshire to take charge of four children of a wealthy couple, the Englands of a mill dynasty. After reaching her destination, she is surprised to find that she is taking directions about the children’s routine from the friendly and easy-going Mr. England, while Mrs. Lilian England is aloof, cold, and withdrawn. While Ruby develops a nurturing and loving relationship with the children, she simply cannot figure out the mysterious couple for whom she works. When she feels the lives of the children are in danger, she must dig deep within her and ultimately face her fears. While caring for the England children and figuring out the power dynamic in the Edwardian marriage of the Englands, Ruby learns to make peace with her past and only then can she break free from the chains that hold her captive psychologically.
Fans of Daphne Du Maurier will love this atmospheric, gothic tale and the shroud of mystery surrounding both Nurse May as well as Charles and Lilian England. Although Nurse May’s character is likeable, the readers know she is hiding a secret so a niggling doubt about her reliability as a narrator remains in the readers’ minds. When we get introduced to the England family, the readers have a challenging time believing the authenticity of Charles England’s affability. There is something inauthentic about his outward friendliness. Lilian England is easy to dislike due to her coldness towards her children. Yet there is a vulnerability in her which questions even our dislike for her. Readers vacillate between who to believe – the charming Mr. England or the aloof Mrs. England. And just when we think the mystery has been resolved, we read the last line – just one single line and get a jolt. All the twists and turns that captivated us and kept us turning pages, all that we believed was resolved gets thrown into question and as we finish the book, we start rethinking the whole mystery all over again.
Piyali is an instructor and research specialist at the Miller Branch of HCLS, where she co-facilitates both Global Reads and Strictly Historical Fiction and keeps the hope alive that someday she will reach the bottom of her to-read list.