Book #73

The Hemlock Cure by Joanne Burn

It is 1665 and the women of Eyam keep many secrets.

Isabel Frith, the village midwife, walks a dangerous line with her herbs and remedies. There are men in the village who speak of witchcraft, and Isabel has a past to hide. So she tells nobody her fears about Wulfric, the pious, reclusive apothecary.

Mae, Wulfric's youngest daughter, dreads her father's rage if he discovers what she keeps from him. Like her feelings for Rafe, Isabel's ward, or the fact that she studies from Wulfric's books at night.

But others have secrets too. Secrets darker than any of them could have imagined.

When Mae makes a horrifying discovery, Isabel is the only person she can turn to. But helping Mae will place them both in unimaginable peril.

And meanwhile another danger is on its way from London. One that threatens to engulf them all.

Historical fiction peppered with witchcraft, wise-women and apothecaries is something I am here for, and I was excited to start this one. Burn throws into the mid-1600s and shows us a village on the cusp of a visit from the Great Plague. Our protagonist is the daughter of the local apothecary, with strong ambitions to become his apprentice, despite her father’s lack of desire for this to ever happen. Tensions are high at home, with only the two of them, and we’re allowed to see the present day presented alongside her father’s diary entries from when her mother was still alive.

Despite the above sounding like something I was ready to plunge immediately into, I had real problems connecting and engaging with the plot. Burn’s initial introduction of her characters confused me, and I had no real idea who was who within the story. The plot is incredibly slow, with huge amounts of focus on listing names of herbs, tinctures, and their effects on the human body, and although I am astounded by the research which was put into this, it definitely made my eyes water - I just wanted something to happen.

I did enjoy the social commentary here. With the plague rampaging its way through the village, and the villagers knocking the door of the apothecary daily, it was interesting to see that their strongest beliefs lay in their religion, and the conviction that prayer and piety would save them above any medicine.

An interesting look at a foregone pandemic whilst reading with the defeated experience of 2021; I just felt we could have benefited from a tighter plot, fewer characters, and a cull on the number of potion recipes we’ve unwittingly learned.