Publisher: Dead Ink
Cover Art: Luke Bird and Tiffany Combs
Book Depository: Paperback*
Content Warnings: Extreme violence; murder; animal cruelty; fat shaming
During the heatwave of 1976, Nif and her family move to the Welsh borders to heal as a family following a tragic incident involving Nif’s younger sister, Petra. Instead of bringing relief from the dark shadows of grief that have been cast over the family, however, the trip forces them further apart through shocking revelations and third party interference.
It is quickly revealed that Nif has a secret obsession she has been keeping. A way of coping with grief, if you will. Nif collects tokens – an egg or two here, a feather, eventually culminating in a ritualistic rhyme Nif must recite for her own form of witchcraft – ‘The Creed’. Initially, it is easy to fall into the trap of thinking this young girl is innocent, and that she has developed these rituals as a way of having some control over the uncontrollable. However, as the story continues, you realise there is something much more sinister at play.
The characters in this book are all thoroughly impossible to like, to the point where it seems as though none of them have any redeeming qualities. There seems to be a ‘well you cheated, so I can too’ attitude with no one ever taking any responsibility for anything, and that’s just the adults! The kids are even worse – roaming the countryside essentially seeking out trouble, with no adult guidance or damage limitation. Nif’s younger brother Lorry is continually subjected to being witness to Nif and her new friend Mally playing their twisted games.
Nif’s protectiveness over her little brother is almost admirable, until you realise he is simply another level in her complex maze of control. She even uses ‘The Creed’ as an excuse to physically and mentally hurt him, something she wouldn’t do if she was even remotely concerned about him as an individual. It seems as though Nif is using what she perceives as Lorry’s needs to project her own and act up as a result of not receiving enough maternal attention. This creates an extremely sinister, tense feeling, as we are constantly on edge, worrying about what her next grandiose plot will be.
Lucie McKnight Hardy is a master of her craft, no pun intended. She writes in a way that is believable for a sixteen year old girl, but with an added sense of unease. You know there is something amiss with Nif, but you are never one hundred percent sure what that is until the very end. The reader can receive one of two messages from the book, which highlights McKnight Hardy’s commitment to the vague and unknown. Firstly, you could perceive it as a commentary on the lack of parental guidance and love causing psychological distress in young people, which is a valid point, as adolescents are neglected all around the world with alarming regularity – I was one such teenager, so I understand this particular message. On the other hand, the story could also be suggesting that we make excuses for young people too often. We read this book feeling sorry for Nif, and empathising with her situation, when the reality is, she is the one who caused it. If her behaviour had been initially nipped in the bud, a great deal of anguish may have been avoided.
Themes of witchcraft vs religion are effectively used here with local church goers ostracising a woman and her son, Mally because their ancestors brought the plague to the village with them generations before. In an amusing, if it wasn’t hellishly creepy kind of way, the traditional roles of religion and witchcraft are reversed as the church goers perform strange rituals in an attempt to banish this family they fear so much. This emphasises the hypocrisy of organised religion in this situation, and allows for remembrance of all the people who were murdered during the period of witch trials as a result of this hypocrisy.
Despite the novel’s list of positives, this review must also carry a warning, simply because of the sheer levels of violence it contains within its pages. Being somewhat desensitised myself, reading about it was still manageable, although I did have to take some breaks during the moments of animal cruelty and torture. However, if you are more sensitive to this type of content, then I would advise caution or even skipping altogether if you have a particularly weak stomach. Some might say the levels of violence are unnecessary and bordering on sensationalist, but I feel it is mostly justified as a way of commenting on boredom in small towns and the blame surrounding incidents, such as the one involving Petra.
Despite Halloween having ended, there’s no reason for our consumption of spooky reads to end, and this is one I thoroughly recommend. The tension that is built up is as thick as tundra ice and almost as chilling. It will be exciting to see what McKnight Hardy comes up with next as she is definitely an author to watch.
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