Hands up, it is confession time!
Before we go any further I need to say…
I haven’t read The Way of All Flesh, the celebrated prequel to the The Art Of Dying, but rest assured I will be sorting that out pronto!
The reasons me wanting for getting my hands on a copy of the The Art Of Dying were numerous. Regular readers of the blog will know that I love historical fiction, love a bit of mystery and jump for joy at the prospect of reading about strong female characters.
The Art Of Dying has all this and more.
But what really intrigued me and sent me cap in hand to Jamie Norman at Canongate Books, (Many thanks for my copy!) was the intriguing prospect of not one but two authors.
For Ambrose Parry is the pen name for Chris Brookmyre, bestselling novelist and his wife, Dr Marisa Haetzman, consultant anaesthetist. They have pooled their many talents and come up with a winner!
The story is set in Edinburgh in 1848. Will Raven, a promising young doctor returns from his European travels to rejoin the household and practice of Dr Simpson, celebrated medic and pioneer of the use of chloroform. Will’s return is overshadowed by events abroad, previous local skirmishes and the unwelcome news that his previous love interest, Sarah Fisher has married in his absence. It has to be said that Raven is an entirely fitting name for this young man with something of the devil about him.
Sarah is Dr Simpson’s former housemaid. An intelligent young woman, her skills have been acknowledged and encouraged by Dr Simpson. In a move entirely against the grain of the male dominated medical world, he has made her his assistant. Sarah is also married to a progressive man Dr Archie Banks, who encourages her medical ambitions. Archie, however, is dying and their time together is destined to be short.
And Archie is not the only person dying in this story. Around the city it seems that whole families are succumbing to strange new symptoms. One such case reaches the attention of Sarah and Raven, as Dr Simpson is slandered by rival doctors. Determined to clear the good Doctor’s name the pair find themselves embroiled in the mystery of the deaths.
Is this a new, as yet unrecorded disease? Or is something or someone more sinister at work?
The city of Edinburgh at this time was at the forefront of medical provision and progress. Throughout the novel we are faced with a whole series of medical professionals who are on the cusp of new ground breaking discoveries. There is a continual battle between those who want to push the surgical boundaries and move forwards, and those who cling to older more traditional, and sometimes down right dangerous ideas.
This story is set in a time when often medicine is for the rich. In Victorian Edinburgh death, is all around, through illness, accident and poverty. Life is not certain; death is quite simply the over riding theme of the book.
The authors have cleverly crafted a tale which continually highlights the fragility of life. The specialism of both Dr Simpson and Dr Raven is Obstetrics, and the Victorian era is a dangerous time to give birth. It is quite symbolic that a mass removed post-mortem from a patient contains teeth and bones. This tumour seems to embody the closeness of birth and death.
And pregnancy and birth are seen as having other implications for women too. Sarah ponders at length what will happen to her medical knowledge and daily work when she herself is a mother. She fears that one life will end when she produces another.
The emancipation and advancement of women is another powerful message within the novel. Sarah longs to be a doctor, yet despite being recognised as equally intelligent and diligent by those around her she is unable to seek a professional qualification.
Sarah is a canny young woman taking charge of her life, hankering for some of the power and status medicine provides. She is determined to develop her skills for her own empowerment but also for the greater good.
But within the novel there is another strong intelligent woman at work, again skilled in medicine and again thirsting for knowledge and certainly power. But her motivations and actions are in direct conflict with Sarah.
Indeed the two characters provide a powerful juxtaposition, Jekyll and Hyde in it’s nature, casting gothic shadows across the plot.
There are so many elements in this book I admire and which conjure other books I love. The battle for female physicians brought to mind Sarah Moss’ brilliant Bodies Of Light. The dark but clever female character weaving her spell in plain sight reminded me of Jane Harris’ superb Gillespie and I. The impeccable historical detail and sophisticated plotting is perfect for fans of C.J. Sansom’s Shardlake series.
The Art Of Dying was a truly engrossing and intelligent read and it is absolute to delight to discover more fantastic authors. Holding my breath to hear more from Ambrose Parry…
The Art Of Dying by Ambrose Parry is published on 29th August by Canongate Books.