The Nature of Monsters - Clare Clark My rating actually falls somewhere between 3 and 4 stars:

Clare Clark manages to successfully evoke the claustrophobic world of 18th century London and its society in this novel, which explores the monsters in all of us and what they make us do. Clark's prose is highly polished and rich, and I could lose myself amongst the dark, narrow, filthy alleys (laughingly called "streets") of ancient London. She has a good ear for the telling detail or metaphor that creates a vivid image in the reader's mind.

Eliza Tally is the daughter of a "cunning woman" who is compromised by the son of a local gentry and is packed off to London to become maid to an apothecary, Grayson Black. Eliza assumes she's been sent to London to get an abortion but Black has plans of his own regarding the unborn child. He is Hell-bent on proving his theory that maternal experiences imprint themselves on the fetus - that is to say, if a woman is frightened by a dog, her child will be born with canine-like deformities; this and other, similar superstitions were quite common.

Black believes himself to be the victim of such a trauma (for which he blames his mother and, by transference, all women). His mother survived the Great Fire of 1666 but he was born with a disfiguring blemish across his face and neck.

Another victim of Black's "scientific" enquiries is the simple-minded Mary (nee Henrietta), the apothecary's other maid. She too becomes pregnant, and is given a monkey to care for in the expectation that her child will be born with simian traits.

The other characters in this drama are Black's wife, a bitter, frustrated woman who has wasted years keeping the apothecary's shop afloat and has invested everything in her husband proving himself to the Royal Society; Black's apprentice, Edgar, a vulgar and petty-minded little man with designs on Black's fortune and property (via the wife); Mr. Jewkes, one of Black's patrons and funder (he plays another role whose revelation would quite definitely be a spoiler); Etienne Honfleur, a Huguenot bookseller who, for a moment, appears to offer Eliza and Mary a way out of their peril; and Petey, a mountebank and the only character who appears to act humanely for no other reason than that it's the right thing to do.

The book is told from Eliza's point of view and it's primarily her "monsters" that are confronted and dealt with. She begins the novel a not-very-kind or sympathetic person but the horrors she and Mary suffer break down that sociopathy and she grows more empathic and sympathetic as the novel progresses. I've been more aware of the question of authorial voice vs. character voice since reading James Wood's [book:How Fiction Works] and I think Clark is remarkably successful in keeping Eliza's thoughts and observations Eliza's alone without injecting too much or too blatant an author's point of view. There are only occasions where I think Eliza writes or says something wholly out of character for an ill-educated girl from an English village.

The one quibble I have about the book is its ending. It's too stereotypically Dickensian - all things come together at the end so that Eliza can live "happily ever after." I exaggerate perhaps since she has lost her own child, a marriage prospect and Mary (whom she's come to love as a sister) but her life takes a remarkably fortuitous turn for the better in a remarkably short time by novel's end. It's not too outrageous or unbelievable but it's something of a non sequitur following 300+ pages building up the image of 18th century Britain as a country of extreme and viciously maintained social and economic classes, hypocritical morality, and little hope of sympathy or succor for those without connection or money.

Aside from that minor caveat, I would recommend this book. It can be read simply for the pleasure of the author' prose, characters and story; or one can read it for the pleasure of exploring the baser instincts of human beings and what they drive us to do.

PS - The following popped into my head as I was writing this brief review:

Another "character" that anchors the setting of the novel is St. Paul's Cathedral (which is the supposed source of the novel, Author's Note, p. 373). It looms large on the city's skyline and in the minds of Eliza and Mr. Black. Eliza sees it as a symbol of an all-powerful God rising above the petty concerns and lives of his worshippers; Black sees it as a symbol of fraud, papism and medieval superstition. (A throwaway observation as I'm not going to follow up on it in this essay but something to keep in mind while reading the book, if a reader of this review goes that far.)