It is September 1726 and Nicholas Fox’s convoy of Medical Curiosities is rolling into the village of Godalming as the sun rises. The curtains of the coaches pulled tightly shut not allowing anybody a “free” look at the curiosities.
Zachary Walsh, 14 years old and an apprentice surgeon of four months watches the convoy from his loft window, his curiosity piqued as to what lies behind all the curtains. He is distracted by a pretty young blonde girl whose face is half covered in a port wine birthmark. The girl who is bellowing advertisements of the exhibition runs up and stops underneath Zachary’s window. She hisses at him and then laughs and runs on. Remember this girl.
Zachary had no intention of becoming a surgeon. He first met his master John Howard as a patient. Howard quickly finds that Zachary has an abscess near his tonsil. He lances it and sends Zachary home. A couple of weeks later Zachary turns up on Howards door and after listening to a few of Howard’s anecdotes, becomes excited. His fascination grows as Howard lends him medical texts and books to take home and read, Zachary is hooked. Howard makes him his apprentice.
Zachary does not try to hide his enthusiasm when Howard tells him that he will take him to the travelling exhibition. Howard declares that it is to further Zachary’s education, but this is far from the reason Zachary wants to attend.
Nicholas Fox, the owner and front man for the exhibition steps onto the stage and in a deep voice, incongruous to his tiny stature informs the full crowd that they are about to be amazed and terrified with the things they are about to witness. And the things they witness are indeed horrifying. A woman without a single bone in her body, the bearded giantess, the man whose spine protrudes through the skin of his back. And all of them have a reason for being as Nicholas Fox explains the stories of each.
As the sun falls, the last exhibit is taken away, Howard tells Zachary as they are walking home that he is sceptical as to the authenticity of most, if not all the exhibits. He then backflips telling Zachary that he believed the last exhibit, that of the two-headed woman was indeed real. Zachary is left unsure as to what to think.
On Oct 13. 1726 Howard is visited by Joshua Toft. Toft take a long time to tell his story, so I shall spare you his ramblings. His wife is ready to have a baby after only six months, Joshua is not the father and he is definitely not a cuckold, and his wife has been crying tears of blood. There short and sweet, but I am sure you will agree, most intriguing.
What follows next when Howard, Zachary and Toft get to the Toft house is quite grotesque. As you have probably read from the synopsis. Mary gives birth to a dead rabbit. Well a dead rabbit in pieces, first the paws, then a decapitated head.
In the following days, Howard and Zachary have agreed to put the whole macabre event behind them when there is a knock at the door and there is Joshua. This time he does not, mumble and waffle through his story, he tells them immediately that it’s happening again.
After the twelfth rabbit, word of Mary’s condition starts to circulate and the rumours and innuendo fly. The King sends his surgeon from London and the rumours, as well as multiplying in number, become more and more bizarre. Nathanael St. Andre claims to have been sent by the king and is the first. Cyriacus Ahlers, a German, is the second, and it’s obvious that there is animosity between the two. The third, Manningham, who checks under the bed, the pillows, searching for some deception.
It is at this stage that the young blonde girl makes an appearance again. Nicholas has some problems after visiting a brothel and needs Howard’s services. This leaves the young girl and Zachary alone. Well, this young girl is most interesting indeed, changing characters in front of Zachary’s eyes, replying to his questions with cryptic answers. When they leave, Anne, who is Nicholas’ daughter, tells Zachary to come to London and that there are still many versions of herself for her to show him and versions of himself that he hasn’t seen.
The situation with Mary is now completely out of hand with people travelling from London to get a glimpse of her, the king decrees that Mary shall be brought to London and the three surgeons, who all proclaim to have been sent by the king, Howard and the two apprentices all travel to London by stagecoach.
For Zachary, London is like another world and he has only just arrived when he receives a letter from Anne asking him to come and see her.
After many days of no new births the miracle of a woman giving birth to dead rabbits seems to lose importance and the surgeons, perhaps all along knowing, admit to themselves it’s a hoax. They now must prove it a hoax and each extricate themselves from facing embarrassment and possible ruination of careers.
Meanwhile Anne takes Zachary and Laurence, Nathanial's apprentice, on a trip to see the darker side of London. The hidden places that few know of, where as Anne says, “Everything that is not forbidden is allowed.” This novel is based on a real case that happened, granted Dexter Palmer has taken a few liberties and lists them at the end of the novel. Where he hasn’t taken liberties, is with his writing. The writing is truly top notch, and the characters a delight to read. There is humour, and towards the end of the novel a terrible dark side. An underbelly of London that people know exists, but most never dare to go.
The novel is set in a time when religion and science were always locking horns. and this adds to the narrative. As more and more people believe the births are a message from god, they start to grow in number, some not even really knowing the full story. The very definition of blind faith. They flock to her window in a constant vigil.
I think that Dexter Palmer has crafted a wonderful fictional story here founded on the back of an historical one. An enjoyable well written novel. 4 Stars.
Dexter Palmer lives in Princeton, New Jersey. His first novel, The Dream of Perpetual Motion, was published by St. Martin’s Press in 2010, and was selected as one of the best debuts of that year by Kirkus Reviews. His second, Version Control, was published by Pantheon Books in February 2016.
He holds a Ph.D. in English Literature from Princeton University, where he completed his dissertation on the novels of James Joyce, William Gaddis, and Thomas Pynchon (and where he also staged the first academic conference ever held at an Ivy League university on the subject of video games).
There is a link here to Poets&Writers asking Dexter ten questions about his latest novel - https://www.pw.org/content/ten_questions_for_dexter_palmer