Weyward by Emilia Hart

Publisher: Borough Press

Publication Date: February 2023

I was intrigued by the novel initially for its beautiful front cover but also because of the name of the book. ‘Weyward’ is such a loaded term, one that seems aimed more at females and attributing blame or scorn on individuals seen as not fitting the mould. Weyward is indeed centred around this idea. It called to mind the ‘weyward sisters’ in Shakespeare’s ‘Macbeth’ three women who operate on the fringes of society and are treated with scorn and derision. In this text, it is more specifically the family name of three central female protagonists who are deemed outsiders because of their actions. Like the three sisters in ‘Macbeth’ it seems to be their individuality and power that instils such fear and consequently, violence.

Firstly, there is Altha in 1619 who is on trial for witchcraft, there is also the narrative of Violet who desperately searches for information about her deceased mother, another wayward woman. Then there is Kate who bravely escapes the tyranny of domestic abuse and flees to Crows Beck in Cumbria. Over the course of the novel the reader begins to understand the connection between these three fierce women and understand more of what drives them.

Moments when the women are alone in the natural world are some of the most powerful within the text. The healing and restorative impact of nature is a reoccurring idea. Emilia Hart describes a moment with Kate, in the later stages of pregnancy where the boundaries of the self become less tangible and she is given power by being outside in the garden of her aunt’s home, ‘There’s a feeling, in her stomach and in her veins of something wanting to get in.’ This almost supernatural element brings about a joining or a communion of the natural world which in the book is almost exclusively female. The impact is female agency and autonomy which is set in contrast with the dominant patriarchy that seems to offer only violence and subjugation.

More than this harmony with nature, female figures within the Weyward family also hold a power that is innate from birth, a power that connects them over the centuries. Altha, who at the beginning of the novel is on trial for being a witch states, ‘I don’t profess to know much of souls myself, I am not a learned woman, other than in the ways my mother handed down to me, as her mother handed down to her.’ This particular knowledge of power is unacceptable in society and has to be kept secret, particularly from men. Men, who seem to be a collective enemy, do not feature well in this book. Many are judgemental and dismissive at best or violent and abusive at their worst. This notion again made me recall the significance of the title and the labels that are put on women when they are seen as acting outside of acceptable societal boundaries.

In Altha’s time it was the label ‘witch’, ‘for this was a word invented by men, a word that brings power to those who speak it, not those it describes.’ Whilst this is no doubt true, I did think the book perhaps lacked a nuanced exploration of male protagonists as they sometimes boarded on being caricatures of evil villains. However, in saying that, the writing in parts was beautiful. Through the representations of these characters, it felt like the writer was asking us to consider how much society has changed. As Altha contemplates that in the future there might be a time ‘when women could walk the earth, shining bright with power and yet live.’ Contemporary readers will no doubt see that this is something still much desired today and we still have a long path to tread. All the female characters were well drawn and compelling, the novel does not shy away from uncomfortable issue such as domestic abuse, rape and ostracization. The tenacity and bravery of these women are matched by the author who herself has had to overcome so much adversity to write the book and become a published author. It is a book that seeks to remind us to strive always for the person we want to be and take pride in our individuality.

Thank you to NetGalley and Borough Press for my ARC.

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