I received a copy of this book from NetGalley. The Hemlock Cure by Joanne Burn is set in an English village of Eyam from 1665 to 1666. The story follows the characters as they navigate their lives during the time of the plague.
The story focuses on Mae, the village apothecary Wulfric’s youngest daughter, Wulfric himself, and Isabel, a midwife, and her husband Johan. Mae has a difficult relationship with her father. This is the reason she hides a lot of secrets from him. She read his forbidden books at night, meets Isabel and a few other ladies to study apothecary and her feeling towards Rafe, Isabel’s ward. Isabel cautions Mae about her father many times. From the beginning, it seems like she knows something about him that Mae doesn’t. As the plague reaches Eyam, things start to change for both the women.
The story is narrated from a third-person point of view, but it doesn’t seem devoid of emotion. It took a couple of chapters to figure out that the narrator is Leah, Mae’s deceased older sister. It makes the story feel more personal, yet it seems like we are observing their lives along with Leah. The characters are the main draw of the story. We never get their first-person point of view, but you can feel and understand their trials and struggles in such difficult times. The setting changes from Eyam to London for a few chapters in the second half of the book when Johan travels to London. There is a history between Johan, Isabel, and Jacques, Rafe’s uncle that, I wish was explored, a bit more.
Wulfric has this dark presence to him from the start, and slowly the pieces come together. He is respected by the villagers which makes it harder for Mae and Isabel to expose him. His ramblings about faith are fanatic, and he is convinced that his wife, his daughters, and Isabel are witches. The extent of his wrong beliefs and his actions driven by them is built-up very well. Mae is right to fear him, even though the extent of it is hidden from her for a long time. Isabel, in her own way, tries to protect Mae from her father as much as she can. She knows what he is capable of and tells her husband, Johan.
Mae has feelings for Rafe, and those feelings are reciprocated. Both are young so, there is an innocence to them. Rafe finds a way to help Mae when she needs it, even when he isn’t capable of doing it himself. The constant dread and anxiety felt by the villagers as the plague starts spreading and claiming lives is something that is relatable in the current scenario. It is steeped in history but combined with fiction. It gives you a true account of life in those times, and the descriptions transport you to Eyam. I was reluctant to start reading this book because it is set during the plague. It hits a little too close to home right now and it took me a while to get past that part.
I had seen a documentary years ago about the village of Eyam, England, during the plague. They had quarantined themselves in the village for more than a year in an effort to control the spread of the plague, to their neighboring towns and villages. It was this that drew me to the book in the first place. The characters of the story are Mae, Isabel, Johan, Wulfric, Rafe, and a couple of others who are completely fictional. While the others are real people that lived in the village back in 1666.
I haven’t read any of Joanne’s Burn’s other works, but I enjoyed the writing style. The way the story follows is completely natural and maintains a good pace throughout. It keeps you intrigued with the plot and makes you want to continue for the characters. It was a different kind of historical fiction than I normally lean towards, but I loved it.
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