Renee at It’s Book Talk began this meme as a way to share old favourites as well as books that were published over a year ago and those that are languishing on the to be read pile for whatever reason.
This week I’d like to share a book I really enjoyed – The Cunning Woman’s Cup by Sue Hewitt. It’s contemporary fiction with paranormal and historical threads.
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.
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.
And there was 🙂 the first of several to date. It’s a beautiful county. You can see my photos of the Duddo stones here.