Imagine what life was like in England in the 1700s. Not the romantic, chivalric images, but the filth, squalor, oppression and hunger. Then add in creepiness.
Voilà! You have The Nature of Monsters.
Clare Clark's second novel offers great detail into the time. Every character reflects how that particular class of person would live during the years covered by the novel. There are no punches pulled, and the world is filled with chamber pots, leeches, superstitions, herbal remedies and more.
The novel begins in 1666, when a mother-to-be is nearly consumed by the Great Fire of London.
Jump ahead a few decades to meet Eliza, who lives in the countryside with her mother, a midwife and herbalist in the village. The young woman springs to life fully realized — and deeply in love with the son of a wealthy family. The heat between them is palatable, but short-lived, and Eliza discovers the power of money and position in 18th century England.
A young woman in a small town might be trapped by shame, but a young woman sent to the city whose husband is "out to sea," most likely conscripted by the Navy, can become just one of the bustling crowd on the shore of the Thames. Eliza becomes a wounded woman in the house of an apothecary who agrees to keep her as a maid for a year.
While Eliza thinks the apothecary, Mr. Black, will end her troubles, the apothecary in turn thinks Eliza will end his. The apothecary is studying maternal imprinting on newborns, and Eliza is unwittingly drawn into his experiments.
Eliza is not alone in this household. The other occupants of the Black household, and of London as a whole, are richly developed: Mary, a fellow servant; Edgar, the apothecary’s apprentice; Mrs. Black, the wife of the reculsive scholar.
Eliza is ignorant to the apothecary’s studies or her unwitting role in them until she accidentally encounters images in a book of his she is asked to fetch from the Hugenots’ bookshop. Only then does she realize what this position has cost her. And when she discovers that Mary is in danger, she finds courage and resourcefulness beyond her years.
The story is told from a few different viewpoints: Eliza’s, Mr. Black’s and from letters that arrive at the apothecary’s house. Each element provides a thread to the fabric of the story — necessary but cumbersome. Most of the story is told from Eliza’s perspective, and much of the information about Eliza or Mr. Black’s studies cannot be obtained from the observations of an illiterate teenager. The methods by which Clark reveals plot points are ingenius: a letter from Eliza’s father-in-law, Mr. Black’s notes during his studies or his opium-induced rants. However, the perspective shifts are not smooth or easy to follow. They jar the narrative and take us out of London, which is as much a character as Eliza.
The real draw of the book is the description of London. That alone makes it worth reading.
In the end, The Nature of Monsters was a satisfying read — but a library read. Check it out from your local library, and recommend it to Brittania-mania friends.