The Fibonacci Sequence and the Magical Perfection of The Familiars, a Novel by Stacey Halls

The Familiars Stacey Hall review

Pendleton witchery. Unusual beasts on the moors. And a pregnant woman called Fleetwood Shuttleworth facing off against 16th century Lancashire patriarchy to save her midwife friend Alice Grey. What more could you possibly want from this exquisitely crafted debut novel by Stacey Halls?

The Fibonacci sequence. A mathematical formula discovered by the human intellect to occur in Greco-Roman art consistently. We then used our instruments to reveal that it occurs in nature as well, an astounding thing in itself. It has been given the name the Golden Ratio or the Golden Mean. Fascinating stuff really, when you get into it. The sequence itself, if translated into a graph or mapping, looks like this:

The Fibonacci sequence. The Golden Ratio. The Gold Mean.

As a student in college, I was presented with this Golden Mean and asked to think about how to make art utilising it, as it is considered a formula for perfection of some kind; the answer, perhaps, to that certain je ne sais quois which, as artists, we may want to embody in our work.

The Fibonacci sequence as seen in nature

As a writer, I set myself a task to figure out how to apply the Golden Ratio to a work of writing. It’s not easy. At all. It involves math and quantification and space and negative space and blah blah blah and, when it comes to applying all that to the written word… well, because writing is such a wild art at times, it really feels impossible. No writer has ever said: “Here you go. This is my novel and it is a great example of the Golden Mean, applied”.

Nothing in The Familiars, a debut novel by Stacey Halls, is about the Golden Mean. In fact, the content of The Familars is as far from these ideas as possible. But stay with me.

The name of the novel The Familiars implies magical thinking of some kind. And it is. Magical. When I finished it, I felt on a very deep level that here was something that – somehow – was just the kind of  fantastic application of the Golden Mean in writing I had been looking for.

I feel I have learnt heaps about pacing and tone from this novel. Things occur at exactly the right time.  When one third is left (and a third is such a precious number when it comes to the beauty of the Golden Mean), the reading experience begins to sort of go in on itself, like in the very last spiral in the graph above.

Things speed up. Emotion begins to run higher. I do not get easily emotional in fiction, but I felt totally rattled. This Fibonacci-esque unfurling feels so perfectly planned via the actions of the protagonist, and it takes your breath away.

Previous to this last third, the pacing is also perfection – slow and measured, creating the wider arcs of the Fibonacci sequence – while layering and so bringing into relief the memorable and enviably named character of Fleetwood Shuttleworth.

When you pick the book up, the cover is not particularly telling of anything, and the title… it’s a bit vague, frankly. There is an excavation of the Lancashire Pendle Witch assizes in here but you wouldn’t know it from the novel’s blurb. What really sets this novel apart is the good old school character creation.

Stacey Halls builds things one small line at a time; a line-layer here, another layer there. Fleetwood Shuttleworth IS the novel. And it’s a deeply female telling of a tale. The plot and pregnancy of Fleetwood Shuttleworth are so deeply entangled that it’s as if the story is the pregnancy. And, having been pregnant, I will testify that the plot and story are painted the same way my experience of pregnancy was – one day blue, one day yellow, other days black AF.

But it is not overly sentimental. That’s important. If we are following the pregnancy of a woman on a mission to save another woman (which is what this book boils down to), nobody wants to read anything overly maudlin. The character of Fleetwood Shuttleworth is unusual. She says things like:  I was always a ghost child. It ought to sound sinister, yet it’s just a statement of fact. Fleetwood Shuttleworth just is, and that is what I love about her.

Fleetwood Shuttleworth is a woman who ‘gets an idea in her head’. She is pregnant and has lost two or three children previously through miscarriage, but she meets a woman with midwifery skills (the also beautifully named) Alice Grey, who actually supports her.

This woman is than taken away for reasons that Fleetwood Shuttleworth refuses to accept, at which point the novel turns into a 17th century detective story with FS as the detective. The absolute best part of all this is Fleetwood riding around on horseback across the Lancashire countryside, throughout the nine months of her pregnancy. ‘Tis a beautiful thing indeed and, again, isn’t overly romanticised. It’s not bloody Lady Godiva. It’s not “Oh her swollen belly was supported as she sat astride the beast” … or shit about her swollen breasts, either. No. It is just Fleetwood Shuttleworth, giving NO fucks about anything. And by anything, I mean the patriarchy…because therein lies the novel’s tension.

It’s the bloody patriarchy, innit? It’s 16th century Lancashire, after all. In that last Golden Third of the novel, as things hot up as Fleetwood is trying to save Alice Gray, there is some gorgeous scene work, where Fleetwood stands off against five, yes FIVE stodgy arseholes, with titles such as “Clerk of the Assizes,” and “Justices of the Assizes” around a grand old dinner table. It is a meeting she has orchestrated and her temerity is wonderful to behold in the face of as I said, five stodgy aresholes who like to say things like: “What place do you have in the courtroom. It is for the LAW (i.e. men) to decide… blah blah blah”.

What is good and proper about a novel is when you have total faith and trust and love in the protagonist and, no matter what, you root for them. This story is not high literary fiction, but it is not light fiction either. It is just right.

And as for all the witchy stuff, what is more witchy than a woman coming into her power and fighting the patriarchy? If you require more witchery, then fear not – there are some grisly, bloody bits involving animals and spooky creatures showing up on the Moors and forests in the dead of night, too. And there’s some fun poppetry to delight you too!

Historical notes on The Familiars

Both the names Alice Grey and Fleetwood Shuttleworth were the real names of people associated with the house Stacey Halls researched for this novel. Alice Grey was, in fact, the only ‘witch’ who was exonerated, and to this day nobody knows how that came to pass.