Fire, plague and an evocative journey back in to London of the 1660s
Story in a nutshell
An apothecary shop in Fleet Street London
Susannah has led a happy life growing up in the sights sounds and smells of her father’s apothecary shop. Since her mother died, she and her father have been close and so when he announces that he is to remarry, she is nervous. The new wife is determined to see Susannah out of the home and so begins a series of misfortune for the young girl. and while her life unravels, the plague and the great fire of London are sweeping the capital. Can her courage and determination save herself in a a city falling apart? can a man in her life help or hinder? What secrets does he hide?
Place and setting
London during the time of the Great Fire would have been a terrifying place to be and this atmosphere is stunningly evoked in this novel.
What must it have been like to witness such horrific events and to be at the heart of them as fear and the fight to survive took over. The quiet that hovers over the characters as the fire is first noticed is chilling when you read how it all develops from there –
She returned to the window. An explosion at one of the river front warehouses perhaps? A fire would be hard to control if the warehouse held brandy or timber.
The fire soon then spirals out of control and it is both shocking and scary to be there as it happens –
Suddenly the crackling of the fire in the roof above was drowned out by a thunderous groan. Flaming thatch and tiber crashed to the floor and a blas of searing air hurled her backwards.
The setting is further evoked with the pestilence that is the spread of the plague. Knowing as we do now that it spread quickly and killed so many, this was like being there at the very start of it all –
Living in fear of plague symptoms appearing, she examined herself at frequent intervals for buboes or discoloration on her skin. Ever tickle in her throat, each suspicion of a headache or hint of nausea sent her into a flutter…
As this situation develops too, the transportation of bodies to the plague puts increased the darkness ye shocking reality of what the city and its people went through at this time. Susannah has a very rough time set against all pf the trauma around her as she has escaped one horrific situation only to find herself in another with an unhappy marriage at a time when women were not expected to do anything other than marry. A fascinating portrayal of London at a key point in history through the eyes of a very well developed character indeed.
This was a very interesting and enthralling read and I cant believe I hadn’t come across it earlier. A novel which mixes fact and fiction so well that you feel as if you have experience of working in an apothecary shop by the end of it. You learn the smells, the potions, about the work which goes on there and it is a vivid and evocative read.
Having watched the Great Fire on television recently,this was a timely read for me and this novel really brought out the fear and the general sense of helplessness mixed with hope. Susannah was a great ‘ guide’ since she allowed us to see so much – not just regarding the position of women in society, the devastating effects of the fire and the plague, but the dangers of medicine and childbirth, the difficulty of having to depend financially on a man and the desire to be independent.
I felt I learned a lot about many things in this book although never once did it feel like I was. (Islington used to be considered as the countryside don’t you know!) A great writer who sets such simple and easy prose to create such complex and heartrending scenes is a talent indeed. The work of the Apothecary was a world I had never been into before and I felt surrounded by glass bottles and potions and how sad Susannah felt to leave it all behind.
I’m very glad the story continues in The Painter’s Apprentice – Susannah is a very interesting and captivating character.