The Nature of Monsters
By Clare Clark
Raincoast Books, 382 pages, $30
Reviewed by Ariel Gordon
LEAF through the first dozen pages of Londoner Clare Clark's richly disturbing second novel, and the following conclusions are inevitable.
First, that the former historian has a dark but orderly brain.
Second, that she is utterly unafraid. Unlike writer-director Guillermo del Toro, who protected audiences from the death of the young girl at the centre of his otherwise unflinching film Pan's Labyrinth (2006), Clark is willing to go almost anywhere, if it should serve her story.
Clark's critically acclaimed first outing, The Great Stink (2005), told the story of a 19th-century war-scarred (and self-mutilating) engineer engaged in retrofitting London's fetid sewer system.
This book goes even further back in London's grand and squalid history. It delves into the 18th-century intersection of science and superstition that was the Royal Society, which took as its members the most eminent scientists of the day.
The Nature of Monsters is the story of Eliza, a 16-year-old maid in rural England.
Educated beyond her station, haughty, and horny (the gothic heroine trifecta), Eliza is practically destined for ruin, an opinion vouchsafed by her scheming mama:
"Fine-looking girls, she asserted, might be divided into two categories: those that men liked to display in glass cabinets like figurines and those that they preferred to handle. I, my mother assured me, was one of the latter type."
Once she has been handled by the son of a wealthy tradesman, the pregnant Eliza finds herself attached to the household of Mr. Black, a laudanum-addicted London apothecary.
Black has a disfiguring port-wine stain on his face and is desperate to prove that the birthmark is not a sign of his "intrinsic corruption" but instead attributable to something called "maternal impression."
This medical theory stated that emotional stimulus experienced by pregnant women could influence the development of their unborn children and produce birth defects and congenital disorders.
The theory ran that if you saw a monster, you gave birth to a monster.
By creating his own monsters in-house -- thereby proving maternal impression correct -- Black hopes to redeem himself both personally and professionally.
Eliza, unable to conceive of the lengths to which Black will go to prove his theories, must use every resource at her command if she is to survive him.
The Nature of Monsters could be lumped in with all the other grisly stories of women in service -- including Samuel Richardson's Pamela (1740), Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre (1847), and Margaret Atwood's Alias Grace (1996). But that would very likely be a mistake, as the novel spends much of its energy elsewhere.
Though by novel's end Eliza has landed in an enviable position, Clark doesn't bother herself with questions as to her protagonist's worthiness to join the upper classes (a la Pamela or Jane Eyre). Nor does she argue for or against Eliza's culpability in her fate (a la Alias Grace).
Instead, she asks: Is Black a monster? Where do his experiments fall, ethically, when put in context of 18th-century social and medical norms, and especially in comparison to those of the (non-fictional) members of the Royal Society?
Though Clark writes like gangbusters when she gets going, that is not to say that the book is without its flaws.
She doesn't always have complete control over her material, which makes the story veer between high melodrama and finely tuned tragedy.
In addition, Eliza's transformation from haughty to humble is sometimes less than believable.
That said, the writing is always and interestingly inventive.
Ariel Gordon is a Winnipeg writer.