by Rebecca Abrams
“The 18th century was an age when almost every aspect of mankind's existence - philosophy, economics, art, law, architecture, medicine, engineering - was studied and questioned. It was also a time when Scotland's cities were "hotbeds of genius", and Scotsmen such as the philosopher David Hume, the economist Adam Smith, James Black the chemist and the geologist James Hutton developed their ideas and successfully challenged the beliefs of the past.” (From The Scottish Enlightenment 1730-1790 - A Hotbed of Genius).
The city of Aberdeen in the year 1790 is the setting for this absorbing and atmospheric novel - the Granite City comes alive in the hands of author Rebecca Abrams.
Alec Gordon is an eminent doctor, namely, Physician to the Aberdeen Dispensary. Having studied in medical schools across Europe at a time when the modern world is buzzing with new ideas, he is determined to bring up to date medical practices to the city, in particular the discipline of midwifery. When an epidemic of childbed fever strikes the town killing dozens of women, Alec is determined to get to the root of it.
Alec’s resolve consumes him, resulting in the unconscious neglect of his own family. His wife, Elizabeth, is a fragile character with her own story. A troubled childhood in Antigua conceals family secrets that she has never been able to reveal. This is neatly paralleled alongside Alec’s story and in a poignant denouement Elizabeth’s mental breakdown reaches its peak just as Alec is sure he has solved the mystery of so many deaths in seemingly healthy women.
Based on fact, this novel is not for the faint-hearted and most definitely not for anyone who is pregnant. It is littered with graphic descriptions of the symptoms and manifestations of puerperal sepsis: “The entire abdominal cavity is floating in a thick yellow liquor. Floating about on its surface are lumps of pus, like globules of grease in a bowl of broth”. While this descriptive licence is germane to understanding the horrors of the illness there is perhaps too much medical jargon that gets in the way and isn’t always really necessary. But, despite that, this is a terrific page-turning medical thriller with relevance today concerning not only issues surrounding hospital-borne infection but also the question of intervention in labour and the role of the modern midwife.