The Way of All Flesh by Ambrose Parry

This historical novel set in Edinburgh in 1847 has one of the best opening paragraphs I’ve come across in a while:

That immediately sets the tone: realistic, sly, and somewhat seedy. If the title sounds familiar, it’s because it’s borrowed from Samuel Butler’s gloomy 1903 meditation on sin and salvation in several generations of a Victorian family. I remember trudging through it on a weekend break to Strasbourg during my year abroad.

Parry (a pseudonym for husband–wife duo Chris Brookmyre and Marisa Haetzman) uses the allusion to highlight the hidden sins of the Victorian period and hint at the fleshy concerns of their book, which contains somewhat gruesome scenes of childbirth and surgery. Ether and chloroform were recent introductions and many were still apprehensive about them or even opposed to their use on religious grounds, as Haetzman, a consultant anesthetist, learned while researching for her Master’s degree in the History of Medicine.

Into this milieu enters Will Raven, the new apprentice to Dr. Simpson, a professor of midwifery. Will is troubled by the recent loss of his friend Evie Lawson, the dead prostitute of the first paragraph, and wonders if she could have been poisoned by some bad moonshine. Only as he hears rumors about a local abortionist – no better than a serial killer – who’s been giving women quack pills and potions, followed by rudimentary operations that leave them to die of peritonitis, does he begin to wonder if Evie could have been pregnant when she died.

The novel peppers in lots of period slang and details about homeopathy, phrenology and early photography. Best of all, it has a surprise heroine: the Simpsons’ maid, Sarah Fisher, who keeps shaming Will with her practical medical know-how and ends up being something of a sidekick in his investigations. She wants to work as a druggist’s assistant, but the druggist insists that only a man can do the job. Dr. Simpson recognizes that the housemaid’s role is rather a waste of Sarah’s talents and expresses his hope that she’ll seek to be part of a widespread change for women.

The Way of All Flesh is sure to appeal to readers of Michel Faber’s The Crimson Petal and the White and Steven Price’s By Gaslight. It’s not quite as rewarding as the former, but the length and style make it significantly more engaging than the latter. It also serves as a good fictional companion to Lindsey Fitzharris’s The Butchering Art; for that reason, I wouldn’t be surprised to see it appear on next year’s Wellcome Book Prize longlist.

Victorian Edinburgh on the endpapers.

Favorite lines:

“That was Edinburgh for you: public decorum and private sin, city of a thousand secret selves.”

“‘Simpson likes to think of medicine as more than pure science,’ [Raven] countered. ‘There must also be empathy, concern, a human connection.’ ‘I suggest that both elements are required,’ offered Henry. ‘Scientific principles married to creativity. Science and art.’ If it is an art, it is at times a dark one, Raven thought, though he chose to keep this observation to himself.”

My rating:

 


The Way of All Flesh comes out today, August 30th, in the UK. It was published in the States by HarperCollins on the 28th. My thanks to Canongate for sending a free copy for review.

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20 thoughts on “The Way of All Flesh by Ambrose Parry

    1. I hadn’t heard of Brookmyre before, but he’s the author of 20+ crime novels, so I imagine a lot of the plotting was down to him, whereas Haetzman would have added the medical and historical detail … but who knows! I can’t imagine ever writing ‘with’ someone else; only trading off sections, perhaps.

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  1. I loved Christopher Brookmyre’s comic crime novels. You really should try his first Quite Ugly One Morning – it is something else! I haven’t read any of his serious crime novels (as Chris Brookmyre) but should. This one goes straight onto my wishlist – you sold it to me!

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  2. Interesting! I just read my first of his books earlier this year (the one Annabel recommended above, which is the first in the Jack Parlabane series) and I can see where this would suit him. I’d heard about him via a BBC books podcast, the general books one, not “A Good Read” which I absolutely adore with Harriet Gilbert, where he did a short piece that had me laughing out loud while listening out and about on errands (never happens). I think one is meant to fall straight into the novel, but that didn’t happen for me, it actually took a couple of tries (a mood thing) and then I had to get more than 75 pages in before I felt committed to the character but I definitely want to read more in the series so it was worth it!

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  3. Ms Foster, I am not familiar with either Faber or Price but I am quite fond of Matthew Pearl & Alex Grecian. In your opinion, would I want to invest my retirement time on the Parry? I eagerly await your response. Thanks.

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