On this occasion I see very little point in playing my cards close to my chest, because I am about to gush repeatedly and quite possible extensively about how much I found to admire and love in the pages of The Warlow Experiment by Alix Nathan
This book quite simply took my breath away.
And not because only because as a chronic claustrophobe, I had to read with a curious sense of detachment. It took by breath away as this novel has so much to offer and so much to say.
Throughout my reading I made copious notes, as this beautifully plotted and many layered novel slowly revealed itself. I made so many notes that in truth I am not quite sure where to start.
Part of me wants to mull things over a bit more; this is a book that leaves you pondering and reflecting after each sitting. I guarantee these characters will dance through your dreams and whisper to you while you go about your day.
But another part of me is desperate to review this while it’s all still fresh in my brain. And I feel strongly that this novel deserves a publication day review.
So am starting in the obvious place, at the beginning.
Not just the beginning of the novel but right at the novel’s conception, the point where Alix Nathan found inspiration for this incredible story.
It surely must be an author’s dream to stumble across something as tantalising as a genuine late 1700’s advert searching for a person willingly to spend seven years underground and entirely alone all in the name of science.It is a gift of a starting point, and from it Alix Nathan has created a gift of a novel.
And so we come to our story. Enter Powyss. An amateur botanist, wealthy and living with limited social contact. Considering himself a man of science, tired of simple experiments surrounding his plants, he conceives a scheme to raise his standing in scientific circles.
He advertises for a man to lived beneath his house in specially designed apartments. Filled with books and furnished in style the only thing the chosen subject will want for is human contact. For seven long years.
One man comes forward. Warlow, a local labourer, a married man with minimal education and a growing family. His labours will earn him £50 a year for life and his wife and children will be well cared for during his time away.
The novel begins as Warlow enters the apartments. At this point it is not necessarily the confinement that is the cause of his immediate discomfort but rather the palatial surroundings he finds himself in. Everything that Powyss has seen as essential to Human enjoyment and sustenance, books, fine china and linen, even an organ is entirely alien to Warlow.
From the beginning obvious tensions and paradoxes are apparent. Powyss sees himself as educated, even worldly and yet his actions and reactions particularly to Warlow underline his naivety and social arrogance.
Powyss does not understand the working man, he does not understand how his estate runs, how the people he employs think and feel.
Choosing to dismiss his acquaintance Fox’s lyrical letters highlighting social unrest, beginning with the French Revolution and spilling across the Channel in the form of workers uprisings, Powyss see the wider world as irrelevant to him. Powyss pointedly ignores his gift of Paine’s ‘Rights of Man’, leaving it’s pages uncut, whilst key members of his staff are lapping up it’s teachings.
In fact, far from isolating himself from what is happening in the wider world, Powyss is replicating a societal microcosm in his own home. What could be more pertinent to the ‘Rights of Man’ than choice, education and freedoms? At so many points the novel is an astute exploration of the nature and notion of universal suffrage.
For quite unwittingly Powyss has created a world where perceived order and hierarchies are being subverted. Power shifts as Powyss comes to understand the implications of what he has done. How easy will it be to release this man after such a period? After years of repression, confinement and potential suffering, what kind of retribution will Powyss face. Once again we staring down a metaphor for a wider socio-economic situation.
Or course it is of no surprise that the experiment fosters danger. But does this danger come from the expected quarters ?
The experiment brings change, upsets balance and careful order. It doesn’t just change Warlow but everyone who comes into contact with it.
And of those affected who, poses the greater risk to wider stability.
Is it Warlow? Living isolated and becoming more disassociated from the world and his own self, beginning to understand, even fleetingly, just how important even small freedoms can be.
Or does risk lie in Powyss’ own shifting priorities? For a man who seems to revel in his self perceived solitude, the experiment is bringing dramatic changes to his social circle. Warlow’s wife Hannah is strangely beguiling. What effect will her presence bring to the situation?
And we shouldn’t underestimated Abraham Price and his sweetheart Catherine, master gardener and housemaid, two of Powyss’ overlooked staff. Both are dissatisfied, both drawn to political developments, but who will take their frustrations to the next level?
The experiment is ill conceived of that it there is no doubt, both subject and creator end up trapped and changed by their experience.
Alix Nathan has created a masterpiece. And I don’t say this lightly. There are so many layers within this novel. So many recurring themes, strands that weave beautifully together.
Clearly this is a meditation on what if costs to live both within the world and the effects of being removed from it. But it’s also offers valuable comment on such themes a religion, personal and political power, rights of women and suppression of humanity. It is a novel with a social conscience, a love story and on many levels a tale of horror.
My review is, I hope, heartfelt but is actually a mere skim across the surface of this incredible tale. One blog review will not unlock the wonder of this novel, but I hope it persuades you to turn the first page.
From there you are lost…