10/04/2012

The Apothecary's Daughter (by Charlotte Betts)

I'd never heard of Charlotte Betts, but this novel was on the 'Bookbag' site shelves, and I liked the cover! I don't usually judge books that way - not entirely, anyway - and was a bit put off at first by the thought of a novel set in 17th century London in the midst of the bubonic plague. Not really my choice of subject matter.

But eventually I requested 'The Apothecary's Daughter' for review, and am very glad that I did. This is a wonderful debut novel. The writing is excellent, with just enough detail to paint a vivid picture of the tragic, often ghastly scenarios of plague-ridden London - the red crosses on the doors, the carts for those who had succumbe - and yet the author manages to avoid gratuitous gore.

Susannah is the daughter of an apothecary in an age when women did not generally work outside the home; her life changes when her widowed father decides to marry again. There's a gentle love story underlying the whole of the book, with jealousies, betrayals and suspicions, but there's a whole lot more too.  Primarily - and obviously - is the background of 17th century London in the grip of plague. It was very well done and brought the time alive to me in a way that school history lessons could never do. But in addition, I began to understand the real dangers of childbirth in that era, and the problems of unscrupulous medics.

More of a shock to me was to learn first-hand (or so it seemed) about how African slaves were encouraged in this era, often treated appallingly. While some of those abusing them were clearly wicked, there was a great deal of ignorance too, if the background to this story is to be believed.

Susannah is a caring and open-minded young woman, but she has grown up in ignorance and cultural bias, and is (for instance) surprised to learn that African children could learn to read. There are a very moving few scenes where Susannah and her slave Phoebe are incarcerated together, quarantined from the plague.

Possibly the book is a little long-winded in places, but overall I thought it an excellent read. Highly recommended.

(You can also read my somewhat longer review of 'The Apothecary's Daughter' on the Bookbag site)

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