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The Witching Tide: The powerful and gripping debut novel for readers of Margaret Atwood and Hilary Mantel

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This isn't really a book to dip in and out of - it's one that you need a good half hour at least to totally lose yourself in. And then, you'll rush your way to the end to see what happens (all the while praying for a happy ending you have about 2% faith will happen). Witches appear to be very “in” these days, among a certain type of woman – a woman, on paper, not unlike myself; those attempting to learn that being “mad” or “occasionally irrational” or “a bit difficult” could, with the right marketing and a few crystals, be reshaped into a positive. And so it might appear, at first glance, that Margaret Meyer’s is merely a brazen attempt to capitalise on this trend (women being, as we all know, by far the largest market for novels). But such cynicism would prove ill-found.

The Witching Tide by Margaret Meyer | Hachette UK The Witching Tide by Margaret Meyer | Hachette UK

Based off the witch hunt trials that happened around 1645-7, this is a lovely literary piece of historical fiction that captures the agony and unfairness of being a woman during this time. The utterly unbearable constant state of danger. At first glance, the premise of "The Witching Tide" was intriguing for me as most novels I've read on the topic of witch hunts were focused on Salem, Massachusetts and not any of the earlier movements that happened in other countries. The novel is told from the Martha's perspective, giving readers a chance to see into her thoughts and memories. While I did find eye-opening the sheer ridiculousness of "evidence" that was presented that led to the death of so many women, I had difficulty getting immersed into the story. The writing style felt stark and rigid at times, and Martha as a character was hard to pin down. The storyline as well wasn't terribly unique as the ending is fairly well known and predictable. Blood sang in her temples and ears: these things occurred when Mam was near. She put the dried toad on her bed with the other charms. The worst of her panic had subsided but still she paused, needing to gather herself. She regarded the charms. Not these. None of these. What she needed was still in the pouch. It was harrowing, reading Meyer’s chilling depiction of the witch hunter, Master Makepeace, to recall that blindly unyielding zealots have always been given positions of power. Throughout history, people have found new and ingenious ways to persecute women, and this is where we get to the root of Meyer’s book. It is, not unexpectedly, a feminist novel, but it is Meyer’s need to ensure we don’t miss this fact that proves the book’s greatest weakness. He looked uncertainly at her, then past her. His expression hardened, decided itself. “Rest here a while,” he said. “Mistress Agnes is still abed. Simon and I will see about Prissy.”The Witching Tide takes place in the 1600's in a small village where chaos comes to reign. The story centers around Martha Hallybread, who is known for her caregiving to the residents with her herbs and helping welcome new babies into this world. She is also house servant to Kit and his wife Agnes. Martha has known Kit since birth and feels very maternal toward him, considering him the son she never had. Agnes is getting ready to give birth herself so it should be a happy time in the household.

The Witching Tide by Margaret Meyer | Goodreads The Witching Tide by Margaret Meyer | Goodreads

One autumn morning, Martha becomes a silent witness to a witch hunt, led by sinister new arrival Silas Makepeace. As a trusted member of the community, she is enlisted to search the bodies of the accused women for evidence. But whilst she wants to help her friends, she also harbours a dark secret that must never be revealed.It’s impossible to picture the world without the figure of the witch. She enters our imaginations early, through children’s books, TV and film. Slippery to define but commanding in her presence, the witch has long been a fascination for storytellers. And perhaps more so now than ever. In the past few years there’s been a flourishing of witch-related conversation. Across publishing there are history books covering the witch trials across Britain, Europe and America; there is a constant slough of fiction for children and above; there’s a new BBC podcast called WITCH which explores the history of the devastatingly violent witch trials before asking what it means to be a witch today. Inspired by the East Anglia Witch Trials, Margaret Meyer's novel is a harrowing experience from start until finish where women are persecuted and demonised by the patriarchy for the most base accusations such as bad weather or poor crops.

The Witching Tide Margaret Meyer on her debut novel, The Witching Tide

Martha is requisitioned by Makepeace to assist with the body searches. ‘You must listen to them, to all they say – their secrets, accounts of witch deeds, their vows to Satan, the names of their imps.’ She begins to walk a dangerous path between doing what is right and compromising her loyalty to her master Kit and mistress Agnes, and to ‘the taken women’, to avoid the gallows herself. Of course, we do know this history bears repeating, lest we forget what was shamefully done to innocent women. There are benefits to exploring the unfair accusations and the horrific results of an unjust witch hunt. But if it’s going to be redone, it needs to actually be interesting and take on something new beyond a mute character who never truly feels mute.There was a heated seven-way bidding war in the UK for Margaret Meyer’s first novel The Witching Tide, which is a transportive reading experience set in the dark heart of the witch trials that took place in East Anglia, 1645-47. I zoomed Margaret to talk to her from her home in Norwich, England on the cusp of the book’s release in New Zealand (where Meyer grew up).

The Witching Tide by Margaret Meyer - Aotearoa New Zealand The Witching Tide by Margaret Meyer - Aotearoa New Zealand

From its open mouth she thought she heard a tiny leaking – a sinister, persuasive hum . . . The doll seemed to cling to her skin. Mam had taught how a left eye was the witching eye, able to see things not readily visible but present nonetheless. We are repugnant to Nature, contumely to God; We are monstrous, legion; We are too many, We are never enough." CM: What was the publishing journey then for this book? Everything I’ve heard sounds like a writer’s dream.

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MM: Because of the fame of the course, agents come and look at who’s graduating. The course produces a kind of booklet, they call it the dossier, which is a short biography of the students who are going to graduate that year, plus a 2,000-word sample of your work. So that had gone out to all the agents. So that’s how I got my agent, Peter Strauss⸺ MM : Well I wrote the book as part of an MA at the University of East Anglia which is quite a famous degree. I took in 5,000 words of this project and was surprised at the reaction from the group. And there was just such a lot of interest in the topic, there was a real energy to it.

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