Saturday, April 4, 2020

Book review: The Way of All Flesh by Ambrose Parry

Title: The Way of All Flesh
Author: Ambrose Parry
Publisher: Canongate Books
Publication date: 2nd October 2018
Genre: Historical Fiction
Series: Raven, Fisher & Simpson, #1
Source: Review copy from publisher via NetGalley

Description: Edinburgh, 1847. City of Medicine, Money, Murder. Young women are being discovered dead across the Old Town, all having suffered similarly gruesome ends. In the New Town, medical student Will Raven is about to start his apprenticeship with the brilliant and renowned Dr Simpson. Simpson’s patients range from the richest to the poorest of this divided city. His house is like no other, full of visiting luminaries and daring experiments in the new medical frontier of anaesthesia. It is here that Raven meets housemaid Sarah Fisher, who recognises trouble when she sees it and takes an immediate dislike to him. She has all of his intelligence but none of his privileges, in particular his medical education. With each having their own motive to look deeper into these deaths, Raven and Sarah find themselves propelled headlong into the darkest shadows of Edinburgh’s underworld, where they will have to overcome their differences if they are to make it out alive.

My thoughts: I went to university in Edinburgh and its one of those places where you can feel the history leaking out of the stones all around you. So a historical story set here, and in one of my favourite historical periods to read about, was a definite 'yes' from me. The book starts just before Will starts an apprenticeship with a doctor. Before he can get there, he discovers that a young woman he'd been visiting has died, and it doesn't seem like natural courses. Will is determined to investigate, even if it jeopardises his new position.

Dr Simpson is wealthy, but treats many patients who could never normally afford a doctor as well, and his specialism is childbirth. Midwifery is a key part of the book, and I found it fascinating and horrifying to see some of the medical practices of the period. It was one of those books where I paused to google quite a few times and learn a little bit more about what was happening in the wider medical and legal community at the time that fell outside the immediate view of the book. Pain relief in childbirth is just starting to be experimented with, but half of the doctors using it have no idea what they're doing, and many women tragically died.

There's a gripping crime plotline through the middle of the book, which I really enjoyed, and an examination of privilege and the position of women at the time through the character of Sarah. But it was the historical aspects that I really found fascinating. Beyond the midwifery, it's woven wonderfully into the story, from the setting of Edinburgh itself, to episodes like when Will spends a day with some photographers and sees how their art is developing.

I really enjoyed this book, and I'm so glad it's the start of a series. If like me you'd like to know more about the author, I was interested to learn that it's actually a writting team: Scottish crime writer Christopher Brookmyre, and his wife, who got interested in some of the topics explored in the book while working on her PhD.

Overall, I'm giving this one 9/10, and I will definitely be reading the sequel at some point.

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