The Awakenings Review

Billed as historical fiction. Reads as horror.

I was so excited to get my hands on an advanced reader copy of The Awakenings by Sarah Maine through Netgalley and I had a great time reading it. Olwen Malkon is a young woman taken in by her uncle’s family but had vivid visions and dreams of an early medieval kingdom of Northumbria. Her family is convinced she is possessed by demons, but she finds a progressive young doctor who offers her real help.

This book was billed as historical fiction but reads as horror. I found it extremely frustrating to watch Olwen be mistreated by her family, the Church, and the medical system. Her uncle and his clerical colleagues try to “exorcise” her “demons,” which only upset and traumatize Olwen. The medical system seeks to drug her into oblivion instead of actually investigating her health. There are so many parallels in this book to medical history non-fiction books I have read recently — Unwell Women, Vagina Problems, Medical Bondage, etc. — which I felt was a nice accidental tie-in, even though the continuing theme of medically mistreated women is depressing.

The only places where I lost the thread a bit with this book were the early medieval flashbacks. It is possible that I just do not vibe with the 700s — I do not think this is the fault of the book or the writing. I would also like to issue some trigger warnings here: sexual assault, medical assault, drugging, kidnapping, and wrongful imprisonment. There is a lot of structural unfairness in this book, but I think Maine navigates it well and shows real historical phenomena without sugarcoating, but also without making it trauma porn. These reservations aside, I would highly recommend The Awakenings.

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