The Lost Apothecary By Sarah Penner
"For many of these women... this may be the only place their names are recorded. The only place they will be remembered. It is a promise I made to my mother, to preserve the existence of these women whose names would otherwise be erased from history. The world is not kind to us... There are few places for a woman to leave an indelible mark... But this register preserves them - their names, their memories, their worth."
The Lost Apothecary by Sarah Penner is a compelling historical novel, set in a dual timeline. You will be swept away by the vivid details of life in the 18thC London, the food and fashions, dirt and horrid odours, effective remedies and poisons. The narrative is both satisfyingly imaginative and distressing.
This accomplished debut was published in the US by Park Row Books on 2 March 2021, and Legend Press in the UK. This year the book will be published in 23 different languages.
Nella runs a secret apothecary shop for women. She describes herself "not just an apothecary, but a murderer. A master of disguise". She is sitting in her tiny hidden chamber, waiting for her next client who could be anyone. "She could be a victim or a transgressor. A new wife or a vengeful widow. A nursemaid or a courtesan..." All they have in common is that they want someone dead. And Nella sells her well-disguised poisons to eradicate the despotic or brutal men in their lives. She has her own principles which she abides by: her poisons should never harm a woman, and the names of the intended victim and his murderer should be recorded in her register.
Nella wasn't trained to be a poisoner. Her mother's legacy was an affirmative one: to aid women. She believed in "the importance of providing a safe haven - a place of healing - for women. London grants little to women in need of tender care... My mother committed to giving women a place of refuge, a place where they might be vulnerable and forthcoming about their ailments without the lascivious appraisal of women".
One day the apothecary shop is visited by a precocious twelve-year-old Eliza, who acts on behalf of her mistress. She is an intelligent girl, seemingly mature in her attitude, but at the same time emotionally undeveloped. She is not scared of the task she has to perform, as if it's just one fascinating albeit dangerous game.
Nella and Eliza begin to form an unlikely alliance. One small mistake will bring the dramatic consequences.
Caroline Parcewell arrives to London to what was supposed to be her celebratory wedding anniversary trip. Only she is on her own, having found out that her sleezy husband has had an affair with a colleague. She is an emotional wreck. "I needed a break from the grief suffocating me, the thorns of fury so sharp and unexpected they took my breath away". While venturing on her own around London, she joins in a mudlarking event and finds an antique vial.
"This was precisely what I found so fascinating about history: centuries might separate me from whomever last held the vial, but we shared in the exact sensation of its cool glass between our fingers. It felt as though the universe, in her strange and nonsensical way, meant to reach out to me..." Little does Caroline know, that the vial will send her on a search not just for the previous owner, but on a quest to discover what she truly wants.
"I was searching for a lost apothecary, yes, but a sense of sadness came over me as I acknowledged what else I sought: resolution to my unstable marriage, my desire to be a mother, my choice of career".
There is a rudimentary design of a bear scratched on the vial. "I traced the bear with my thumbnail, thinking of all the vial had taught me: that the hardest truths never rest on the surface. They must be dredged up, held to the light and rinsed clean."
We follow the stories of these three women, so different, yet equally unfulfilled and ready to embrace the truth about themselves.
Caroline's story is less engaging, in a way, she is just a tool, a device used to take us back in time to discover the story of the apothecary. She could have easily been erased from the story. Instead I would have liked to read more about Eliza, and women who rebelled against the suffocating restraints of their lives.
There is a definite feminist slant on the plotline. Nella insists on keeping the register, writing the women's names for posterity, but this is not the kind of mark one would want to preserve. In fact, I imagine women who had their names inscribed would see it more as a possible tool for revenge, blackmail and infamy. Powerless women fight men the only way they physically can, by using poison. They are victims and killers at the same time. Those who are forced to obey and conform, rebel and become ruthless.
The Lost Apothecary is a fascinating tale, with an ascending degree of menace, as the hidden door in the Bear Alley reveals its deadly secrets, and real tension builds up.
Sarah Penner is the author of The Lost Apothecary, her first novel. She works full-time and is a member of the Historical Novel Society and the Women's Fiction Writers Association. She and her husband live in St Petersburg, Florida, with their miniature dachshund, Zoe.
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Many thanks to Sarah Penner and Legend Press for my e-copy of the book!