- Author: Sue Hewitt
- Published: March 2014 by CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform
- Category: Contemporary Fiction with a touch of Paranormal and Historical
When Alice McCleish’s gardener Brian unearths an object of great archaeological significance deep under the compost heap it is not only Alice and her burgeoning friendship with Margaret Allerton, retired Professor of Anthropology, that are affected: the family, friends and neighbours of Alice, who people the narrative, are also touched by subsequent events. Alice and Margaret find themselves questioning long-held beliefs about the material and spiritual world that surrounds them; and both women find their lives transformed unalterably by their newfound companionship.
The book opens with a haunting flashback to a period in pre Romanic Britain where we meet Mordwand of the Brigantes (the cunning woman), who survived being aborted and was raised by a wolfhound. After the hound died Mordwand became ‘the eyes and ears’ of the healer who aborted her, and learned what she could from the old woman until old age took her as well, and Mordwand found herself alone once more. Short, intriguing and sometimes distressing passages from her life begin each chapter and I love how these chart the significance of certain items, as well as the history of the stones.
Alice McCleish’s cottage stands by the stone circle near the village of Duddo in Northumberland, where she’s lived alone but for her dog, Nipper, since her husband, Callum, passed on. While out with Nipper one day Alice meets retired Professor Margaret Allerton, who is on a walking holiday. The two ladies form an instant bond, even though to all outward appearances they have little in common and lead completely different lives. Nevertheless their meeting is the start of a lasting and close friendship, which is demonstrated in part by the exchange of lovely letters between the two of them.
Please do not insult me by refusing this cheque. I insist that you have it to cover the costs of food and heating during my overextended stay. It is by no means too much: your kindness was offered with no expectation of reward; what you have done for me is from the goodness of your own heart. I do not think I have experienced that kind of congeniality before, except among some of the more primitive and nomadic peoples I have met on my travels. I would like you to treat yourself to something special – a holiday? – a new something? I will phone you when I am settled in – we do not need to speak of the money again – just accept it is yours, as I had to accept that I was damaged and needed time to mend – time which you gave to me and which is beyond any price.
I feel that ‘at my age’ I have finally found true friendship.
Alice is a mainstay in the close community of Duddo, and has lived in her cottage for more than forty years, she and Callum having bought it from Callum’s boss, farmer Wyllie Turnbull. Wyllie and his wife, Violet, are both suffering in their different ways from the pain and sorrow of a past tragedy.
The mystical standing stone circle is a catalyst in the story, events and tragedies over the years playing out from echoes of the distant past. The arrival of Avian Taylor, a psychic and healer who can sometimes hear those echoes, helps where she can and in doing so raises questions of long-held beliefs in some of the residents of Duddo. At the same time Avian opens up new avenues of acceptance. An ancient artefact (the cup of the title) is unearthed by Alice’s gardener, Brian, and brings more characters into play in the form of an archaeological dig. There are several connecting storylines, which could have been overwhelming, but each is built expertly into the narrative creating a multi layered and exceptionally skilful debut novel which flows smoothly and fluently.
Sue Hewitt also very cleverly weaves issues into the story which relate to the present day. Most notably with Alice’s son, Michael and his wife, Penny, revealing how people can be drawn into living to work, rather than the reverse, without realising the rewards are sometimes empty and meaningless, the old values, community and neighbours who care, not as outdated as they might once have seemed. The nature and persona of the characters is explored and developed through easy, believable dialogue and their reactions to the world around them. Struggles with grief, loss and the differing systems of belief, all round out and individualise each person. The setting is fabulous and described so vividly. The cover, which I absolutely love, evokes the atmosphere of the book. I’m fascinated by stone circles and have seen a few but not the Duddo stones, so perhaps a trip to Northumberland is in my future.
My thanks to Sue Hewitt for a complimentary copy of the book. This does not alter/influence my opinion or the content of this review, which is written in conjunction with Rosie Amber’s book review team.
About the author
Sue was born in Kent in 1957. She has lived happily with her family in the Scottish Borders for the past 25 years. The Cunning Woman’s Cup is her first novel. Sue has written sporadically as a pastime since childhood, never thinking it would be possible to get published. The support of friends, family and fellow members of Kelso Writers’ Group encouraged her to embark on self publishing The Cunning Woman’s Cup.
Serendipitously, she discovered that almost on her very doorstep (in fact, the very doorstep of the house she had first moved into in Scotland) lives Chris Foster – proofreader, editor and ally – whose expertise in transforming an amateur manuscript into a publishable, professional product was priceless. Additionally, Chris’s son Kit Foster (who Sue remembers as a small boy) is now an award winning book cover designer. Kit’s work in formatting the text and providing all the technical support a technophobe could ever need, as well as producing a superb cover design, has also been invaluable.
Sue works as housekeeper and gardener for the artist Susan Ryder. She lives in a picturesque lodge house with arch-shaped windows and doors and enjoys the rural life.