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Book Review: Woodenface by Gus Grenfell. (Witches in 17th C England)

 Book Review: Woodenface by Gus Grenfell. (Witches in 17th C England)

Alone again, Meg undid the strings of the bag that dangled from a rope belt at her waist, hidden by the long apron she wore over her plain dress. Inside the bag were her dolls figures, she called them. She took them out and sat them on the edge of the gravestone. There was Dilly-Lal, with her fixed smile, Drum-a-Dum with his sticks held out, reading to beat his drum, and Bolly-Bolly with his sly, knowing look.

Meg is a Maker, someone whose skill at woodcarving goes far beyond the natural. Her work is imbued with life, with spirit, with tiny personalities and skills. But in seventeenth century England, standing apart from everyone else can be a very scary thing, no matter on how small a scale it is.  Meg is all too aware of this. She remembers vividly what happened after finding out that she was double jointed in one of her fingers:

None of them could do it. It was only a tiny thingit made me feel different and special. Then the next day I was walking down the street and two girls crossed over to avoid meAfter that I was glad I was different, but sometimes I wished I wasnt.

Its a slippery slope from there, however. Both Meg and her skilled woodcarver father have caught the eye of other townsfolk, and superstitious rumblings have followed ever since. One night, a local merchant with an axe to grind about Megs fathers independent business dealings shows up with the local priest and accuses Megs father, and then Meg, of using witchcraft against others:

First he attacks my business by persuading others not to weave my wool and not to trade their cloth in the village, and now he attacks my family. If it isnt him afflicting Patience, who is it, eh? I tell you, Reverend, someone should burn for this.

When Megs father disappears, Meg goes on the run, making her way across the countryside with the help of her magical wooden carvings and a number of similarly outcast individuals she meets along the way.

Woodenface is a dark, atmospheric tale, as one might expect from its 1650s setting, and in it Grenfell has created a gloomy yet intriguing historical England. Any levity is in the characters, who are slightly caricatured in their presentation, and who cavort about on the pages with a winsomeness that helps ameliorate the discomfort lent by the unwarranted castigations, persecutions, intolerance and punitive actions rife through its pages. Even the books design is eerie, with various creepy little sketches snipped from the cover featured at each chapters beginning.

Its a book that certainly highlights both the dangers and opportunities of being different. As things progress, we see how any difference, no matter how small, can be made an issue if someone more powerful (or numerous) wishes it to be. Intolerance and perceived difference are largely socially created from fear and from lack of understandingand whether something is good or bad is largely a matter of perception. Meg, for example, likes the fact that she looks like her father until this becomes a point of difference and impetus for prejudice. Her friend Simon, on the other hand, who suffers from what seems like epilepsy with accompanying visions, has the following conflicted view:

At first I thought they happened to everybody. It was only when I started describing them to my mother that I realised other people didnt have them. She took me to a cunning man in the village. He told us I was either cursed or blessed, but he didnt know which. After she died, my father tried to beat them out of me he said they were sent by the devil.

We see something similar when Meg, who delights in her wood-carving, watches another Maker at work: With a shock, Meg realised she was seeing these people as Jake saw them he could see the worst in any face. She imagined him making puppets of them, a cruel twist of the knife to show their discontent, their anger, their greed, ignoring the good things about them.

Theres very much a theme of the world being what we make it, and also of what we allow it to be. The fact that people fall back on superstition and unfounded accusations out of fear or even of complacency is something that resonates in its continued relevance. So, too, is the wielding of power to ones own end. Mr Sutcliffes tarring those whose business activities undermine his own as witcheswhich plays out in this book in a way that very much recalls Arthur Millers The Crucibleis chilling. And the fact that the accused have no recourse or power to respond is frankly terrifying.

Theres also the perverse obsession with death and hanging that parallels that seen in Mary Hoopers Newes From the Dead. Death has such a curiously ambivalent place during the time of the books setting. Its so hugely prevalent that it has to be ritualised, and people seem to both want to avoid it and almost revel in it. Its like by approaching death and observing it they can develop some sort of immunity to it; in contrast, with every death of someone else, an onlooker can take comfort in the fact that theyve been saved.

Given its strong world-building and likeable protagonist, I found Woodenface a solid read overall, but did have a few issues with it. At times I felt that it became bogged down by its multiplicity of characters who are often hard to differentiate (for example, Megs three similarly named dolls) and who seem to just pop up out of nowhere; the ending was also a little too speedy to be satisfying. The writing is sometimes uneven as well, being at times quite mature and at others feeling very young and innocent. And to be completely petty, something about the title rubs me the wrong way.

Still, theres a good deal here to recommend it, and Im sure that confident middle years readers will enjoy the strong sense of place, the supernatural elements, and even the old-fashioned languagetheres even a handy glossary in the back for those more antiquated or regional terms.

Rating: star Book Review: Woodenface by Gus Grenfell. (Witches in 17th C England)star Book Review: Woodenface by Gus Grenfell. (Witches in 17th C England)star Book Review: Woodenface by Gus Grenfell. (Witches in 17th C England)blankstar Book Review: Woodenface by Gus Grenfell. (Witches in 17th C England)blankstar Book Review: Woodenface by Gus Grenfell. (Witches in 17th C England) (good)

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