The author AK Blakemore has won the Desmond Elliott prize for best debut for her historical novel about the English witch trials in the 17th century. The Manningtree Witches was praised heavily by judges who called it a “stunning achievement”.
The novel follows the character of Rebecca West, a husbandless and fatherless woman who is only just tolerated by the villagers of Manningtree. The story showcases the fallout of events after a pious newcomer called Matthew Hopkins begins to ask villagers about the women on the margins of their society.
This is Blakemore’s first novel, although she does also have two published poetry collections under her belt.
“My dad lives in Manningtree so it was an area I knew quite well. The process of the writing began when I was in a fallow period of writing poetry. I was messing around with prose, just to have something to write, and the story just really sort of jumped out at me,” Blakemore said.
“I didn’t really have the intention of writing and completing a novel, it started as play. But coming at it from poetry, I had a decent sense in writing of aesthetics and a cinematic, graphic way of composing scenes in my mind. And something about having a story from history that already had a beginning, middle and end, was quite liberating in that sense.”
The Manningtree Witches beat other shortlisted novels such as little scratch by Rebecca Watson and The Liar’s Dictionary by Eley Williams. Blakemore will take home the £10,000 prize.
A previous winner of the prize, Lisa McInerney, was one of this year’s judges and said that Blakemore’s tale “takes limited historical detail and, with what seems like effortless grace and imagination, crafts a breathing, complex world full of wrenchingly human characters, and tells us their stories in language that bears endless rereading, so clever and unexpected and pleasurable it is”.
The author herself said that she was “really, really thrilled” to win. “And honoured – the shortlist was just full of amazing books.”