Audiobook review: ‘Cunning Women’ by Elizabeth Lee

They only want a kindness, but beware, for if you have no coin, they will curse you black and blue.

1620s Lancashire. Away from the village lies a small hamlet, abandoned since the Plague, where only one family dwells amongst its ruins. Young Sarah Haworth, her mother, brother and little sister Annie are a family of outcasts by day and the recipients of visitors by night. They are cunning folk: the villagers will always need them, quick with a healing balm or more, should the need arise. They can keep secrets too, because no one would believe them anyway.

When Sarah spies a young man taming a wild horse, she risks being caught to watch him calm the animal. And when Daniel sees Sarah he does not just see a strange, dirty thing, he sees her for who she really is: a strong creature about to come into her own. But can something as fragile as love blossom between these two in such a place as this?

When a new magistrate arrives to investigate the strange ends that keep befalling the villagers, he has his eye on one family alone. And a torch in his hand.

Cunning Women is the powerful reckoning of a young woman with her wildness, a heartbreaking tale of young love and a shattering story of the intolerance that reigned during the long shadow of the Pendle Witch Trials, when those who did not conform found persecution at every door.

Being a Lancashire girl myself, I’ve grown up hearing about the injustice and intrigue surrounding the Pendle Witch Trials of 1612. 400 years on, they are still quite a big deal around here. In local schools, we teach about how the twelve accused were charged with the murders of ten people by the use of witchcraft. Ten of these ‘witches’ were found guilty and executed for their ‘crimes’. We know their names and we are familiar with their stories.

This novel is set a decade afterwards, in the shadow of those trials. It is not a good time to have marked skin or to be dishing out herbal cures and curses to your neighbours, but Sarah Haworth’s family do just this. Lee develops a real sense of desperation in this novel, and it is clear that Sarah’s family are really living life on the edge – something is bound to tip the balance. The family are desperately poor, and make money were they can. Feeling that they have the ‘gift’, Sarah and her mother take their chances in order to survive, whilst Sarah’s brother treads an equally dangerous path by stealing from others.

I’ll admit that I was expecting this novel to be centred on witch trials – perhaps picking up the stories of those who had been left behind in their aftermath. It’s not. I quite liked that this family aren’t classed as witches. Whilst the family are seen as being different and the villagers are wary of them, they are known to be cunning folk: they are also held in a certain respect, and their help is sought in times of need.

The relationship between Sarah and Daniel is central to this story, and I’d describe it as a historical romance rather than an exploration of witchcraft. Their relationship certainly has an interesting dynamic to it and they experience a rollercoaster of events.

In terms of the novel’s themes, witchcraft is not really one of them, and this may disappoint some readers. There is still plenty to this book, however. There has been plenty written about the witch trials themselves, and this is an interesting examination of what life was like for the poorest and most vulnerable in society in the 17th century – not a place I’d fancy timetravelling to myself. In the shadow of King James’ ‘Demonology’, fear and suspicion rise quickly to the surface.

This is a tale of betrayal and naivity, and also hope.

The novel is set in the aftermath of the  Pendle Witch Trials of 1612
‘Cunning Women’ is set in the aftermath of the Pendle Witch trials of 1612.

Is it Lancashire?

The only thing that irked me about this book is that, despite having lived in Lancashire all my life, I really didn’t recognise this as the novel’s setting. There was a lot of talk about people being fishermen, and having their nets and catches either cursed or blessed. Fishing is not a viable industry in the shadow of Pendle Hill. Perhaps it was set near to Morecombe, or Blackpool, but this wasn’t very clear at all. In fact, I’m now wondering if it’s actually meant to be set in Lancashire at all, or whether it is merely near to the trials in time rather than place.

One of the main problems that audiobook ‘readers’ experience is that it’s virtually impossible to recap on details that you’ve forgotten or missed. I hope that the author will forgive me if it’s just me not registering details about where the novel is actually set, but I found it all very vague, and would have valued more mentions of place names and descriptions of the setting, Lancashire or otherwise.

How does it rate as an audiobook?

This audiobook is read by Taj Atwal, a British actress born in Norwich, and is best known for playing the role of Jasminder in ‘Stella’. Her most recent role is that of ‘Jasmin’ in the new Kay Mellor British drama comedy, ‘In the Club’.

Atwal’s voice is warm and empathetic. I enjoyed listening to her reading and it was well-paced and full of emotion. I felt that it added another level to the narrative and would recommend this audio version to others.

Thank you to Net Galley UK and the publisher for letting me listen in advance in exchange for my honest review.

The audiobook of ‘Cunning Women’ is due to be published by Penguin Random House UK Audio on 21st April 2021.

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