Beloved Poison by E. S. Thomson reviewed

Beloved Poison Book Cover Beloved Poison
Jem Flockhart
Elaine Thomson
Historical fiction
September 1, 2016

The object I drew out was dusty and mildewed, and blotched with dark rust-coloured stains. It smelt of time and decay, sour, like old books and parchments. The light from the chapel's stained glass window blushed red upon it, and upon my hands, as if the thing itself radiated a bloody glow. Ramshackle and crumbling, trapped in the past and resisting the future, St Saviour's Infirmary awaits demolition. Within its stinking wards and cramped corridors the doctors bicker and fight. Ambition, jealousy and hatred seethe beneath the veneer of professional courtesy. Always an outsider, and with a secret of her own to hide, apothecary Jem Flockhart observes everything, but says nothing. And then six tiny coffins are uncovered, inside each a handful of dried flowers and a bundle of mouldering rags. When Jem comes across these strange relics hidden inside the infirmary's old chapel, her quest to understand their meaning prises open a long-forgotten past - with fatal consequences. In a trail that leads from the bloody world of the operating theatre and the dissecting table to the notorious squalor of Newgate and the gallows, Jem's adversary proves to be both powerful and ruthless. As St Saviour's destruction draws near, the dead are unearthed from their graves whilst the living are forced to make impossible choices. And murder is the price to be paid for the secrets to be kept.

Sometimes you simply look at a book and it appeals. Beloved Poison, a first book by E S Thomson, was like that for me. It intrigued me and I don’t often read historical books. Set in in the 1800s in a hospital in London I realised immediately that I was being painted a very vivid picture of life at that time. Beloved Poison concerns Mr Jem Flockhart (who is actually female) who works in the apothecary at the hospital with her father.

In a sense this is real melodrama. Brothels and dirty streets, resurrectionists and murder, madness and medical matters are all brought out vividly by highly evocative writing. The dark dank (& smelly!) atmosphere is almost palpable. However there is humour here too and that gritty feel of the real world. The various characters are mostly very well development – I can even see many of them in my mind’s eye now. The standout character is without question Jem. She – her father has pointed out that she cannot be female and an apothecary – is, for me, wonderfully written. Jem manages to be is highly ambiguous and believable. She is the star even through her uncertainty about many aspects of the life she leads.

In the end I found this an extremely poignant & powerful story. The whole book feels somewhat bleak & dark and the ending maybe even more so. However it is entirely in keeping with the story to me. I find it very hard to believe this is a first book – the writing is so vivid and accomplished. The pictures of life in 1800s London painted for me here are still with me as I write this review.  As someone who rarely reads historical fiction I’d love to find out what happens to Jem next!

Note – I received an advance digital copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for a fair review