The British author Katherine Stansfield has a mesmerising novel (The Visitor, 2013) and an exquisite poetry collection (Playing House, 2014) to her name. Falling Creatures is her second novel. Set on the Bodmin Moor in Cornwall where Stansfield grew up, it tells the story of an actual murder which occurred in 1844. A young woman’s throat was slashed; a man who lived on the same farm as her was hanged for her brutal murder. A memorial commemorating the gruesome event still stands on the spot where the woman died and continues to haunt locals and visitors alike. The records of the real story are inconclusive as to what might have truly happened. But where the historian’s hands are tied, a novelist can step in and imagine a plausible scenario. This is precisely what Stansfield did for Charlotte Dymond and Matthew Weeks of Penhale Farm.
The story begins with a chance encounter between the narrator, whom we eventually get to know by the name of Shilly, and Charlotte. After her mother’s death, Shilly is left by her father at the All Drunkard pub where she and Charlotte are hired by the widow Mrs Peter to help on her farm. A special bond develops between the two young women when Charlotte gifts Shilly “blood-heat” on the day they meet. She gathers the body heat of a horse in her hands to warm Shilly with. From that moment on, it is clear that Charlotte has mysterious talents and communes with powers the other inhabitants of Penhale Farm and the surroundings are weary of, but Shilly also finds enthralling.
Charlotte’s beauty and skills cast spells over the people who cross paths with her. Mrs Peter’s son John and farmhand Matthew are drawn by her magnetism, as is Shilly. She feels very protective of her new friend, who reads nature and human deeds for signs and predicts that “terrible things will happen”. When Charlotte is found dead on the moor soon after her arrival at Penhale Farm and Matthew is apprehended as a suspect for her murder, a charismatic stranger arrives on the scene to investigate the horrific deed and requests Shilly’s assistance in his quest. The devastated Shilly obliges, but also has her own demons to confront as the tantalising story unfolds: “I had loved her, though she was cruel, though she was sly. She was my girl, and after all, anyone who claimed to have no badness in them was shown to be bad by the lie. She and I were just as the rest of the world – creatures falling, creatures failing.”
Stansfield’s take on the historic events of 1844 is as bewitching as her protagonist. If you are a fan of historical fiction, Falling Creatures has all the ingredients that will keep you hooked. Stansfield weaves together a fascinating plot, charismatic characters – real and imagined – and atmospheric prose to delight the aesthete. The sequel to Falling Creatures, The Magpie Tree, is to be published early next year, and it will be eagerly awaited.
by Katherine Stansfield
Allison & Busby, 2017
Review first published in the Cape Times, 18 August 2017.