Beloved Poison – E.S. Thomson
Published by Hachette NZ
We’re all aware of that old saying to “never judge a book by its cover”, but sometimes, I think you can predict what sort of novel you’re delving into just by staring at its cover. Beloved Poison had me hooked before I’d even opened to the first page; the cover is alluringly dark and deathly, and the pages within meet, and exceed, the expectations set by that first glance. Plus – there’s embossing, which is always a good start!
Beloved Poison is set in a grimy, festering, crumbling London hospital in the 1850s. Syphilis is rife within the city, jealousy seethes underneath the doctors’ skins, and a murderous secret lurks in the shadows of the wards.
The story is narrated by the apothecary, Jem Flockhart, an interesting observer of everything that happens within the walls of St Saviour’s Infirmary. Raised as a boy after her mother and twin brother died in childbirth, Jem is a conflicted young woman who doesn’t seem to “fit” anywhere in society. She has hidden her femininity all her life, and as a result of keeping her own precious secret, is painfully observant and aware of everything and everyone around her. When a young man arrives to oversee the excavation of St Saviour’s cemetary prior to the hospital’s demolition, they uncover a secret that’s been hidden for a number of years, and set out to solve the meaning behind their macabre discovery. However, someone doesn’t want them delving too deeply, and the results are deadly.
Beloved Poison is richly descriptive and elegantly composed. The images conjured of a dirty, disease-riddled city are powerful and evocative; with each page, you can almost smell the decay and the rotting earth.
The characters are beautifully created and explored, without Thomson falling into the habit of excessive descriptions of looks, clothing and demeanour. Words are not wasted; every sentence is well-thought out and vital to the unfolding story. This is a very clever, very dark story, one which I couldn’t put down until I’d turned to the last page. There were a few moments of predictability, but for most of the novel, I was left scratching my head, wondering who was behind the sinister happenings at St Saviour’s.
This is a very enjoyable read, that will keep you guessing right up until the final moments.