Livi Michael is a haunting and original book. And it goes on haunting you long after you’ve finished reading it.
Whilst I initially found the opening “argument” between the storyteller and Jennet Device about who was going to tell her story less compelling than the rest of the book, as I read on, I realised I liked this opening because it tells you what this book is doing: taking a well-worn story that you know – or think you know – out of that practically mythological place the story of the Pendle Witches inhabits in social discourse (‘A long time ago, in the Forest of Pendle, there lived a family …’) and into the real world.
Because what Livi Michael does with Malkin Child is show that the story of the Pendle Witches is not just a window into past beliefs and darker times, and a re-telling of one of the most infamous trials in British history, but is a personal and family and community tragedy.
I got my copy from the eye-catching display for the book in Accrington Library, and as soon as you see it, the front cover of Malkin Child is arresting, foregrounding a young girl who seems to look out of the past right at you, but also beyond you. Clever stuff.
The story is beautifully written in a wonderfully atmospheric style, and although it is of course a fictional re-telling, Malkin Child gives an authentic voice to a young girl who inhabits the lowest strata of the social spectrum: the youngest child of a family living in poverty. As we read her story, we are drawn into her world and her character, and there is an authentic sense of historical time and place in the homely details of her life. But it is brought into the present in the compelling immediacy of Jennet’s voice, and the reader inhabits that world with her.
I particularly love the way Livi Michael weaves nature seeping with the darker elements of fairytale into the story, and with a child’s-eye view which keeps a firm hold on realism, such as Jennet’s dislike of ‘gathering sticks’ for the fire in the wood ‘when the light was fading’ because ‘everyone knew there were goblins in Trawden wood. And wolves …’
The wolves in Jennet’s story are the kind that are hairy on the inside, however, and more frighteningly real as they prey on her youth and naivety to serve their own purposes. What Livi Michael does in Malkin Child is show how Jennet’s own powerless situation operates, not only within her own family circle, but crucially, within the wider social spectrum, and her psychological and emotional experiences within this.
Malkin Child has uncomfortable echoes of the present where you can’t help feeling little has changed. Children are still living in poverty, are still being abused and manipulated, and their own voices are still ignored.
The question of power haunts Malkin Child, and it is this adult-child and social inequality that leads to fatal consequences when Jennet is in the hands of those with power and the determination to use it. And you know it and feel it all the way through the book, as it pulls you inexorably towards the tragedy you know is coming.
Jennet is a child. She is vulnerable, she is naïve, and she is manipulated by those with an agenda of their own into betraying her family. As a child, Jennet is unable to understand the consequences of her testimony, yet Livi Michael gives her a compelling voice and all you can do is read on.
Because we know the story, reading Malkin Child is a doubly-haunting experience. It is beautifully, hauntingly written, and we know what happens in the end. We can see how Jennet is being manipulated, and what haunts the most is that the Malkin child cannot see what is coming, but we can.
The question I'm left with is what will change?
Malkin Child by Livi Michael has been commissioned by Litfest to mark the 400th centenary of the Lancashire Witch Trials, and has been chosen by Lancashire Libraries as its Lancashire Reads book for 2012.
Some of the proceeds from the book are going to support Stepping Stones, a charity working to protect children in Nigeria being accused of witchcraft today.
postscript: this review has also been published on the Lancashire Libraries Lancashire Reads page.