BOOK REVIEW: Water Shall Refuse Them by Lucie McKnight Hardy

If you’ve not heard the name Lucie McKnight Hardy, then you better stand up and take notice – because with her latest offering Water Shall Refuse Them, I firmly believe that it announces her to the literary world and with it introduces a writer that will change the literary landscape for years to come!

Dead Ink have a penchant for discovering and publishing women writers who are not only gifted storytellers, but those who can spin unforgiving and unforgettable eerie tales (Naomi Booth, Sophie Hopesmith and SJ Bradley we’re looking at you) and Lucie McKnight Hardy is no exception to that rule.

Water Shall Refuse Them is a slow burning masterclass, which I would liken to the writings of Shirley Jackson, with its pace, tone, suspenseful writing and subtle creepiness – an unsettling undercurrent that grows slowly throughout the novel, covering you gradually in a blanket of fear and unease. It also has elements of the Wicker Man with its small town ways and creepy townsfolk and I would also say the 1996 film The Craft with its adolescent witchcraft element – but with all the comparisons Water Shall Refuse Them has an originality to it which sets it apart (it is not just a mishmash of books and films that have gone before). The sheer writing brilliance on show by McKnight Hardy is stunningly crisp, refreshing and allows the novel to unnerve the reader in its own special and haunting way.

The novel is set during the heatwave of 1976. It was before my time but from what I’ve heard it was a scorcher, droughts, unbearable heat, dry land – it was almost apocalyptic in its ferocity. And McKnight Hardy gets this across in her writing – the heatwave and setting of the story are in fact characters in their own right, whilst being the framework that the whole story hangs from – and believe me when I tell you, McKnight Hardy is deft at creating believable and atmospheric landscapes (her story Jutland is another example of her mastery over crafting three dimensional worlds that you can feel with every sense).

Sixteen-year-old Nif and her family move to a small village on the Welsh borders following the tragic death (drowning) of her younger sister. They flee their grief, which in turn also enables her father, who’s a sculptor, to work in a new environment – one which isn’t surrounded by the memories of all that they have lost. But the thing about grief, is that it doesn’t stay put – it follows you around like a looming shadow, and as her family unit begins to unravel in the secluded village, as grief pulls at the delicate threads holding her family together, Nif begins to dabble in her own form of witchcraft creating her own creed to deal with all that is going on, by collecting talismans from the world around her.

The relics sat on the mantelpiece in the correct order: Robin’s egg, magpie’s egg, duckling bill and bone. Blackbird’s egg, feathers of wren…and then the space where the incantation should have continued.

Everything seems to be unravelling, the grief laying thick, suffocating – like the still and stifling air. Something needs to change and that’s when she meets Mally. An outcast and labeled outsider in the community, a teenager who takes a vested interest in her and her creed – but a boy who also has his own secrets to offer. Water Shall Refuse Them is an atmospheric coming-of-age novel and a thrilling debut.

There seems to be a huge outpouring of novels and short stories with a folktale vibe of late, books such as Folk by Zoe Gilbert, The House With Chicken Legs by Sophie Anderson, Lanny by Max Porter and The Girl of Ink & Stars by Kiran Millwood Hargrave, not to mention the wonderful This Dreaming Isle Anthology edited by Dan Coxon. It’s a ripe genre, a genre that has inspired many a tale, over many a year, they are the foundation to our lives, whether we realise that or not. These are stories that were told to us growing up, as children enjoying a bedtime story, or hearing them uttered around a campfire. Many of us have even grown up in places where fables and folklore are commonplace.

So, it is a genre that is part of us, ingrained in us, it shapes and transforms us, it inspires our storytelling and enthuses our imagination. Water Shall Refuse Them at its heart is a folktale, a disturbing and wonderful piece of storytelling and could even be classified as I have seen the phrase being banded ‘Folk Horror‘. But whatever label you put on it, it doesn’t change the fact that Water Shall Refuse Them it is a powerful piece of fiction that you can drown yourself in.

What I especially loved about the story is that it is subtly crafted, it has an ambiguity to it – which McKnight Hardy wields well and the storytelling benefits from it. McKnight Hardy gives the reader just enough, never spelling it out, never treating the reader to too much information, never showing us all of her cards. But as the story develops, the keen eyed reader can start to see the seeds that she’s sprinkled throughout the story budding and coming to life, spreading out like tendrils through her prose making the ending a harvest of devastating, horrific delights.

Water Shall Refuse Them is everything I wanted and more. Lucie McKnight Hardy truly announces herself with a tale that the Grimm Brothers would be proud to have in their cannon or cauldron. If you do one thing this summer, make sure you buy this book…

Water Shall Refuse Them is published by Dead Ink Books and is available here.

Lucie McKnight Hardy

Lucie McKnight Hardy grew up in rural West Wales, the daughter of London immigrants. She grew up speaking Welsh and her education was in Welsh. She studied English at the University of Liverpool, studied creative writing with the OU, and has just completed the MA in Creative Writing at Manchester Metropolitan University.

Reviewed by Ross Jeffery

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