Eliza Tally lives with her mother, a midwife and herbalist, in a small village several hours from London. Following the death of her husband, Eliza’s mother sees few options to ensure their survival and gives her comely daughter to the son of a local landowner, after ensure they marry in front of the hearth. When Eliza becomes pregnant with his child, he renounces their union and her desperate mother makes a deal with the devil, selling Eliza into servitude with the apothecary, Grayson Black.
Delivered to the bizarre household, Eliza struggles to cope with her burgeoning pregnancy and the strict demands of Mrs. Black. Believing that she has been sent to London so that Mr. Black may rid her of the unwanted pregnancy, Eliza realizes with dawning horror that this has never been his intention. Her only companion Mary, the slow-witted servant girl, Eliza sinks into a melancholy relieved only by her visits to the French bookseller Mr. Honfleur until the day she makes a startling discovery.
Set in early 18th-century London, Clare Clark’s The Nature of Monsters is a masterful tale of gothic suspense. Although mostly powerless and victimized, Eliza possesses an indomitable will, refusing to bow to the fate thrust upon her. In the early part of the novel, Eliza is a character who may alienate the reader. Prickly, self-centered and ignorant, her arrival in London sets in motion Black’s plans and the dawn of the horror readers feel on her behalf. By making the readers aware from the start Black’s sadistic plans for Mary, Clark slowly creates an atmosphere full of tension and unease. His plan to frighten/stress Eliza into giving birth to a deformed child is chilling and to our modern eyes nonsensical, yet the beliefs of this time were that experiences of the mother would have immediate effect on the child. “…for a dread of unseen horrors beyond her immediate environs must surely stimulate a heightened state of imagination which shall serve the work to its considerable advantage.” “On no account may she be permitted to grow comfortable.”
Clark clearly illustrates that monsters come in all guises, whether born that way or created through single-minded obsession. Black is so lost within his dreams of scientific fame and heavily addicted to opium, that he deems no cost too high in pursuit of his treatise. Although many at the time would view Black as a monster because of the raspberry birthmark on his face, what truly makes him a monster is his character and lack of human compassion for those he should be protecting. As he states in his journal: “bring the whores to me & I shall make monsters of them all.” In the Black household, the true monsters are the apothecary and his wife.
To modern eyes, the “scientific” discoveries appear nonsensical and the fascination with monsters (human beings plagued with infirmaries and birth-defects) to be cruel and inhumane. Little attention at the time was given to ethical ponderings of the experiments being carried out by men of science throughout England. Clark has brought this quest for scientific discover vividly to life and in the process, leads readers to question whether today we are any different. We may no longer dissect live dogs or believe “the child bears the imprint of the mother’s passions as sealing wax receives the imprint of a stamp,” but are we truly any different than those who visited sideshows to examine hunchbacks or dog-headed children?
In an age of growing intolerance, Clark’s novel will leave readers wondering what methods we use to create monsters today. What we perpetuate in the name of science now has far greater potential to inflict damage on both our species and the world around us. Greater knowledge does not naturally lead to increased compassion. Readers will quickly appreciate that the worst monsters are hidden in plain sight and, despite her appearance, Mary is the least monster-like of anyone in The Nature of Monsters.
Publisher: Harcourt, Inc.
Publication Date: May 1, 2007
tags: books book reviews Clare Clark historical fiction