Top positive review
In the witchfinder John Sharpe, Steadman has given us a religious psychopath par excellence ...
7 July 2017
Picture it, if you will, sir: two childhoods both brutal and idyllic, the rural English Northeast and the south of Scotland in in the Seventeenth Century. The civil war an afterthought, the routine tragedies of the daily grind are detailed and laid bare. The misogyny of the accursed Christian church is given full reign with the coming puritan insurgency that would seek to ban Christmas, folk dancing, and many other things: really, what would possibly go wrong?
But enough of the silly voices. Based on fact and extensively researched, Widdershins takes us on a rollercoaster ride through the childhoods of Jane Chandler and John Sharpe in County Durham and Scotland respectively, as they hurtle through the ether toward one another on an inevitable collision course. Something must break, as they say. And break it does, in the horrifyingly climactic Newcastle witch trials of 1650, in which either fifteen or sixteen innocents were hanged until dead on a single day.
In the witchfinder John Sharpe, Steadman has given us a religious psychopath par excellence, a deeply conflicted man for whom cognitive dissonance could have been invented, filled to overflowing with impotent rage for his immaculately damaged childhood, somehow unaware of this in the days before Freud and yet aware of it too. He knows he’s a fraud, yet believes himself to be doing God’s work; and so he soldiers on, his paltry excuse for a conscience clear. Had he been born today, he’d likely be a flight to Turkey, en route for Syria: plus ça change. Jane is his polar opposite, almost a romantic heroine, but in a good way: her wealth of misfortunate experience neither warps nor breaks her, and although she adapts to the slings and arrows life throws at her in a pragmatic manner, she remains true to the end.
I am not usually much of a one for historical fiction, unless it’s about England in the 1970s – but Widdershins had me on a knife edge throughout. It’s expertly plotted and immaculately paced, with more twists and turns than Fat Larry’s pants. The characters are by turns engaging and enraging, and the whole thing really puts you there, in time and place; it’s impossible not to get emotionally caught up and then put through the wringer by the fate of the victims of these show trials, effectively the end result of the clergy subjecting themselves to such unnatural practices as celibacy, which inevitably led to a mass gynophobia, passed onto the gen pop through the medium of fiery sermons. This really is an amazing first novel, astounding and outstanding. Five stars.