From the very first page The Coffin Path gives off a sense of foreboding and building menace. It begins in the Spring 1674, fourteen years into the reign of Charles II, although people and places still bear the scars of the English Civil War. Mercy Booth lives with her father, Bartram Booth, and an aging female servant, Agnes, at Scarcross Hall, an isolated farm in Yorkshire, connected to the local village by the coffin path of the title. Mercy now runs the farm, doing much of the work dressed in male clothing, alongside her hired hands. Rumours swirl about of a history of past violence at Scarcross, a place overlooked by standing stones, the White Ladies, where there are whispers of ancient blood sacrifice.
The story’s start is vivid and compelling as Mercy alone, on dusk, struggles to deliver a lamb presenting feet first, from a dying ewe. As Mercy returns home, the lamb cradled against her in her waistcoat, she senses something evil lurking on the moors and glimpses a shadowy figure behind her in the fog. Several days later a stranger arrives, Ellis Ferreby, a self-contained man with a troubled past and a gift with animals. Mercy hires him and slowly comes to rely on him, much to the resentment of Henry Raven, a married farmhand of coarse appetites who believes he has Mercy’s special favour. Ellis’s arrival seems to prompt inexplicable happenings – three ancient coins of her father’s disappear, sheep are brutally mutilated, footsteps sound within locked rooms. Are there rational explanations for these things, or is the evil of the past resurfacing?
Structured around the seasons, this atmospheric story traces the patterns of the farming year and the changing tasks performed on the farm, beginning in Spring and ending in the depths of Winter. Clement’s prose is both unobtrusive and, at times, almost poetic with a flavour of the 17th century, and alternates between Mercy’s first person point of view and Ellis’s third.
The minor characters are well drawn and believable, their attitudes and beliefs in keeping with the period and their isolation, credulous people turning to superstition and ready judgement when misfortune presents itself.
The brooding sense of menace present at the beginning slowly intensifies as the story progresses. This was done so skilfully that it made reading late at night quite a challenge for this reader with an overactive imagination.
I absolutely recommend The Coffin Path. I was hooked within the first few lines.
I was born with blood on my hands.
I killed my mother on the 22nd of August, in the year of 1642, the day the first King Charles turned traitor and chose a battlefield over a throne. She was not murdered by musket shot or slaughtered by steel blade, as many were in those years of war. Hers was a woman’s fate. She died in blood – the blood that bore me on its tide.
Another review can be found here.