Reviewed by Ambrea
It goes without saying Jem Flockhart received an unconventional upbringing growing up in the shadow of St. Saviour’s Infirmary; however, her unusual childhood goes deeper than that. Raised as a boy and given all the opportunities of a male colleague at the London infirmary, Jem has spent her life under her father’s tutelage as an apothecary and she has watched the everyday happenings—the backstabbing, the bickering, the ambition and personal jealousies that hide beneath a professional façade—of St. Saviour’s.
But when six tiny coffins, each filled with dried flowers and bundles of bloody rags, are uncovered in the infirmary’s old chapel, Jem is catapulted into a new mystery with deadly consequences. Pitted against an adversary both powerful and ruthless, Jem follows a dangerous and winding path that leads her from the squalor of the alleyways of London and the dissecting tables of St. Saviour’s to the stinking depths of Newgate Prison. Grim, haunting, and tragic, Beloved Poison by E.S. Thomson is a dark tale that sinks deep into the dark heart of the medical profession.
When I picked up Beloved Poison, I read the blurb on the back of the book written by Janet Ellis, author of The Butcher’s Hook. It state simply:
“Beloved Poison is a marvelous, vivid book with a thoughtful, engaging protagonist at its center—and a fascinating story to tell. It’s immaculately researched and breathtakingly dark. Elain Thomson’s descriptive powers are so great that I was surprised to see twenty-first century London rather than the grimy, smelly St. Saviour’s around when I—eventually—looked up from its pages.”
As I read this, I felt a familiar jolt of recognition that told me this would be a good book—no, a great book. And I wasn’t disappointed.
Richly atmospheric, as the book jacket promises, Beloved Poison is a wonderfully descriptive novel that plumbs the darkest depths of Victorian London. It sheds light on a horrifyingly brutal series of murders that will rock the residents of St. Saviour’s to the core, tearing back the veil on the social conditions of the poor and highlighting the grim realities of 19th century medical science. Secrets, lies, and murder will abound. It’s all very horrible.
And yet I enjoyed it. I enjoyed it very much.
Jem is one of the more intriguing characters I’ve had the chance to meet. She’s daughter to St. Saviour’s apothecary, but she’s been raised as his son—and no one, except a very few who may have their suspicions, knows of her identity. She keeps her hair cut short, she walks and speaks as a man might, she wears clothes as a man would wear. She’s been given a startling taste of independence and, yet, she knows she would be condemned for her, what society would term, “abnormal behavior.” She’s deeply conflicted.
Furthermore, she’s a thoughtful and insightful narrator. She’s complex, she’s intelligent, and she’s unique for her ability to understand the minds of both women and men—as she has lived as both in her lifetime. She’s absolutely fascinating, and I was eager to learn more about her. Although Jem’s investigation takes center stage, I found myself just as curious about her and her world as the identity of the killers.
Jem, like the coffins she discovers in the old chapel, is a puzzle. She’s complicated, yes, but I liked that Jem had so many layers to her character. I liked that she was so continuously conflicted by her identity and her struggles as she straddled the world of both men and women. As I read, I discovered she must keep her gender a secret: she hides behind her marvelously dark birthmark and a caustic wit, she masks any touch of femininity in her character, she learns to act as a man might and treat others as a man would. She grapples daily with her own doubts and fears, facing the somber reality of Victorian social expectations and her unconventional upbringing. She’s often left wondering whether she’s been ruined for her “unnatural habits”—or has she been given an unexpected taste of independence, a unique identity that allows her to perceive the world in a completely different light?
I loved it. I grew to love her and her story and, truthfully, I couldn’t wait to read more. I devoured E.S. Thomsons’ novel within a couple of days and, after discovering a sequel is in the works (titled Dark Asylum), I’m extremely excited to read more.
However, I will note something about Beloved Poison: it’s extremely violent and very graphic. As a reader, you will encounter gore, sexual abuse and exploitation, as well as confront a callous disregard for human life. Not to mention, the general uncleanliness practiced by medical professionals of the day. For example, it’s incredibly distressing to read about a man having his leg amputated without any anesthetic or hearing, in detail, about a necropsy. Or, and here’s a familiar scene, watching a man inject himself with syphilis.
Something similar happened in The Anatomist’s Apprentice by Tessa Harris and you’d think I’d be used to it by now. But, no, it’s no less jarring in Beloved Poison.