Monday, 9 April 2018

The Pharmacist's Wife - Vanessa Tait

My first instinct was to deride a comparison with Sarah Waters whose work I love but having completed the novel I totally understand the parallels. At times this book makes for uncomfortable reading but it covers a wide plethora of issues regarding women in the Victorian age. 

Our ‘heroine’ (forgive the pun, read the book to get the pun!) is Rebecca Palmer who has married a pharmacist. The book begins as Alexander Palmer opens his new pharmacy. Without revealing too much neither Alexander nor the marriage is all that it seems or indeed all that it should be. Alexander’s desire for fame and fortune with the manufacture of a new compound overrides any integrity or humanity he might have, not to mention his fetishes. Dispassionately he administers his new drug to his wife to ‘pacify’ her. It is only Rebecca’s awareness and intelligence that enable her to find a path out of the labyrinth of deceit and skullduggery which she manages to parry with some of her own. 

This dark and brooding tale threatens to engulf its reader with the gloom, despair and unpleasant proclivities of the majority of male characters. Homage to Dickens here with the aptly named partner of Alexander Palmer (which I won’t divulge as I think it would be a spoiler to do so). Gabriel and Lionel seem to be the exceptions. The female characters are well drawn and guide the reader to the outrageous inequalities of the Victorian age. They also help to illustrate how drug and drug dependency haven’t changed throughout history sadly and the book doesn’t seek to sugar coat the tragic consequences. Intentionally the writer draws our sympathies towards the female characters, the trio of Rebecca, Evangeline and Jenny.

The writing is lively and well paced, the novel reads authentically and the atmosphere created is tangible, you can almost smell the streets, a testament to solid research. The cruelty of some aspects the story are spiky to read. It made me edgy but I guess it was supposed to, something of the Victorian gothic among the pages. The conclusion is redemptive, as fictions maybe need to be. I did enjoy the book and I am grateful to Readers First for the opportunity to do so. 

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