Book Review: The Magpie Tree by Katherine Stansfield

The Magpie Tree by Katherine StansfieldThe Magpie Tree begins where Falling Creatures left off, with Shilly (the narrator) and her new companion (Anna Drake) arriving at Jamaica Inn in 1844, looking for a new mystery to solve. There is a strange mix of historical realism and gothic horror, as the pair begin to investigate the disappearance of a young boy. But this is no ordinary detecting duo. Anna transforms herself into an array of different characters, unwilling to reveal her true identity, whilst Shilly sees things in the landscape around her which others do not, things which suggest a merging of past and present, reality and myth.   

In contrast to the barren landscape of Bodmin Moor, this new adventure takes Shilly and her companion to a wooded valley that feels alien and close, creating a sense of unease. Here they encounter Mrs Haskell, grandmother of the missing boy:

She came hurrying towards us from the trees… and as she drew closer I saw the skin on her face was papery from being old. Her old face and her hands were the only parts of her body to be seen, for she was covered by a thick shawl that looked so large as to be wrapped around her many times over. It was as if she’d clothed herself in the shadows that hung between the trees.

Stansfield has produced an unsettling read, with atmospheric detail that pulls you in to a landscape of superstition and supernatural goings on. The villagers are certain that Paul Haskell was taken by the ‘furriners’ – a pair of women in a woodland cottage on the other side of the river. They claim to be artists, staying in the area to sketch the magnificent waterfall, but the locals accuse them of witchcraft. Anna Drake dismisses this as nonsense, but Shilly sees a link with the tale of Saint Nectan, a monk who was drowned by two sisters, and a hatred which fills the woods, stirring up trees so that pathways appear to shift from one moment to the next.

Shilly is an unusual choice of narrator for a historical detective story, being illiterate, addicted to alcohol and determined to see the supernatural everywhere. The sexual tension between Shilly and Anna is strong from the start, adding an extra dimension to their relationship, which seems to be based on a mutual interest in discovering truth, seeking adventure and finding an alternative way to earn a living.

There is a sense of illusion, as stories overlap and characters mirror each other. The two women in the woods are hiding something, just as Shilly and Anna are strangers to the area with their own ulterior motives. Saint Nectan’s ancient murderers appear to haunt the woods with their callous hatred and unseeing eyes, and we’re never sure how much we can rely on Shilly’s narrative. She sees things which Anna cannot see, but this is fuelled by a heavy dependence on alcohol. She suspects witchcraft at every turn, and is fearful of the magpies which gather in large numbers around Saint Nectan’s tree.

The further you delve into this strange tale, the more surreal it becomes, with some rather uncanny coincidences, a ferocious cat (called Pigeon) and a gruesome murder. I was struck by just how dank and threatening this landscape is, seen through the eyes of a character used to the openness of the moor, and it brought back memories of walking through woods at dusk, seeing strange, ghostly shapes in every tree stump.

This is an unsettling tale, full of fear and suspense, with two unconventional and independent women at its centre. They must solve the mystery of who abducted Paul Haskell, and attempt to rescue him before it’s too late, but they must also remember that, as outsiders, their own situation is similar to that of the two strange women in the woods, and caution prevails.

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Declaration: I received a free copy of this book from the publisher.

2 thoughts on “Book Review: The Magpie Tree by Katherine Stansfield

  1. Katherine Stansfield draws the reader into her novel , the mystery keeps the reader puzzled, and the author successfully combines sentimental but effective descriptions. Her imagination is stimulated by a sense of place

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