The Pharmacist’s Wife…
About the Book:
A dark and thrilling tale of Victorian addiction, vengeance and self-discovery.
Love. Desire. Vengeance. A deadly alchemy.
When Rebecca Palmer’s new husband opens a pharmacy in Victorian Edinburgh, she expects to live the life of a well-heeled gentlewoman. But her ideal is turns to ashes when she discovers her husband is not what he seems. As Rebecca struggles to maintain her dignity in the face of his infidelity and strange sexual desires, Alexander tries to pacify her so-called hysteria with a magical new chemical creation. A wonder-drug he calls heroin.
Rebecca’s journey into addiction takes her further into her past, and her first, lost love, while Alexander looks on, curiously observing his wife’s descent. Meanwhile, Alexander’s desire to profit from his invention leads him down a dangerous path that blurs science, passion, and death. He soon discovers that even the most promising experiments can have unforeseen and deadly consequences…
Reminiscent of the works of Sarah Waters, this is a brilliantly observed piece of Victoriana which deals with the disempowerment of women, addiction, desire, sexual obsession and vengeance.
The Pharmacist’s Wife is exactly my type of novel. Historical fiction set in the Victorian era with a creepy gothic undertone orbiting around an horrific abuse of power. All it was missing was the mental asylum, but the threat of it was there, so ticks all round! This story put me in mind of one of my all time favourite television series, Penny Dreadful, and it was thrilling to read a novel that harnessed that vibe so thoroughly.
Imagine a man, a scientific man, who is clever and focused. This man has invented a drug that promises so much, but he needs to conduct a study. So he actively seeks out a wife, deliberately selecting a woman who is alone, and therefore unprotected. And unbeknownst to her, he begins to give her his new drug and is able to embark upon his terrible research. And there is no one to stop him, because he is a respected pharmacist, a man of science, and she is just a woman. Hysterical and in need of care. Are you creeped out yet? You should be, and this is only the half of it.
Alexander and his business partner, Mr Badcock, are truly despicable men. While Alexander seeks scientific glory, Badcock seeks riches, so the two work together in a bid to achieve this with Alexander’s invented wonder drug: heroin. In addition to experimenting on his wife, two other women fall victim to their trap, and Alexander sets about observing these three women as they each spiral deeper into their heroin addiction. Alexander and Badcock both have rather depraved sexual desires and this of course undermines their work and it amused me to no end to see each of them spurn the other when they find out each other’s predilection. Each thought they could keep their habits a secret, but each also acknowledge how exposure would destroy their study and their chances for glory. But as so often is the case, desire over-rules sensibility and the two were unable to surface from their debasement without consequence. These were two very evil men who had zero respect for women. They chilled me to the core and I spent much of my time reading this novel in a state of tension feeling an incredible amount of dread.
This is a novel that doesn’t hold back. It shows the grime of poverty in Victorian Edinburgh, the depravity and evil that lurked in the shadows, the contempt some men had for women — it’s like stepping through a black hole into a time long past. Women had it tough back then, dependent in every way and regarded as lesser on every level. Rebecca showed such strength in the face of her adversity. She literally had to fight for her life, as well as her freedom and safety. Her revenge on Alexander and Badcock was a sweet victory that paved the way for her to set herself up with a new future, but it was also evidence to them that she was a force to be reckoned with, not a meek compliant wife who could be experimented on. Sadly, her realisation that her addiction was deadly came only after a terrible tragedy. The realism of addiction was depicted so well throughout this novel, and I particularly enjoyed how Vanessa Tait showed the descent from within her addicts as well as in an observational manner. The irony, of heroin being invented as an antidote to the addictive properties of morphine.
The Pharmacist’s Wife is top shelf historical fiction blending seamlessly into the realms of gothic. It was a frightening read, much in the way stories of the past can be, that reflection upon society and the horrors that were commonplace within a given era. I loved this novel and highly recommend it. I did see that it was classified as historical romance on some sites; far from it, more like historical thriller. Read it if you dare!
Thanks is extended to Allen and Unwin for providing me with a copy of The Pharmacist’s Wife for review.
About the Author:
Vanessa Tait grew up in Gloucestershire. She went to the University of Manchester and completed a Master’s degree in Creative and Life Writing at Goldsmiths College. The Pharmacist’s Wife is her second novel.