My enormous thanks to Natalie Clark at Impress Books for an advanced reader copy of Widdershins by Helen Steadman in return for an honest review.
Widdershins will be published in paperback on 1st July 2017 and is available for pre-order here.
‘Did all women have something of the witch about them?’
Jane Chandler is an apprentice healer. From childhood, she and her mother have used herbs to cure the sick. But Jane will soon learn that her sheltered life in a small village is not safe from the troubles of the wider world.
From his father’s beatings to his uncle’s raging sermons, John Sharpe is beset by bad fortune. Fighting through personal tragedy, he finds his purpose: to become a witch-finder and save innocents from the scourge of witchcraft.
Inspired by true events, ‘Widdershins’ tells the story of the women who were persecuted and the men who condemned them.
My Review of Widdershins
Jane learns the ways of natural healing from her mother. John is an orphan affected by his bad luck. Each is a product of their time.
Widdershins is absolutely brilliant. Read it.
I’m not sure I can bring myself to say anything else, so wonderful was this story, but I’ll try.
Set in the mid seventeenth century, Widdershins paints the most vivid and disturbing portrait of the times. Helen Steadman shows humanity (or frequently the lack of it) nature, superstition, the church and authority, relationships and life at all levels in a totally absorbing and disturbing read. On occasion I could hardly bear to continue and I kept stopping to put down the book and recover my composure before I read the next part so enraged was I by the attitudes displayed. I had a good idea intellectually about the era and how women were treated, but I’ve never experienced that knowledge so viscerally and emotionally as I did when reading Widdershins.
The characters of Meg, John, Jane, Tom, Annie et al were described so wonderfully through their speech and actions that they came alive as I read. I utterly loathed John but understood him completely so that alongside my hatred, Helen Steadman made me feel sorry for him too. That is masterful writing. I don’t want to reveal any of the plot for fear of spoiling the read for others but there were elements in Jane’s story that had me exclaiming aloud and giving her advice until my husband thought I’d gone quite crazy.
Widdershins is inspired by actual events but this is no dry retelling of our history. Helen Steadman is as much a witch in her spellbinding ability to enthral the reader as any of those in the story. I’m not usually overly fond of dual narratives but the stories of Jane and John absorbed me entirely and as their lives began to converge my heart genuinely thumped louder. Widdershins is historical fiction at its best, but it’s also a roller coaster read of emotion and thrills too.
I really like the way Widdershins is divided into three sections, perhaps representing the superstitious number three and its significance in the holy trinity and folklore that underpin the story.
However, an aspect that I think really took Widdershins from a very good read to an outstanding one for me was the overall quality of the prose. There’s a cracking plot, historical accuracy, naturalistic dialogue befitting the era and wonderful characterisation, but best of all is the beauty and rawness of the language. The natural descriptions took me back to my childhood and I felt there wasn’t a word out of place. I was there with Jane picking elder flowers for example.
Initially I wasn’t especially looking forward to reading Widdershins as I thought it might be dry and ‘worthy’. Instead I discovered a vivid and dynamic story that transported me back in time it and cannot recommend Widdershins highly enough.
About Helen Steadman
Helen Steadman lives in the foothills of the North Pennines, and she particularly enjoys researching and writing about the history of the north east of England. Following her MA in creative writing at Manchester Met, Helen is now completing a PhD in English at the University of Aberdeen. When she’s not studying or writing, Helen critiques, edits and proofreads other writers’ work, and she is a professional member of the Society for Editors and Proofreaders.