The year is 1718. Blinded by the excessive passion of first love, Eliza Tally finds herself pregnant at sixteen, her titled young seducer willing to pay to have the fallen girl placed in service to an apothecary in London. A calculating mother cosigns the bargain and Eliza is whisked to the domicile of her employer, Mr. Black, who hides his face under a black veil and performs questionable research to gain the attention of the London Royal Society. This is a desolate place, consisting of Grayson Black's office, the apothecary shop and the living quarters, ruthlessly attended by the severe Mrs. Black and an apothecary's assistant, Edgar Pettigrew. The only other resident is the mentally and physically defective servant, Mary. The nature of Black's experiments cloaked in secrecy, an oppressive gloom pervades every day of Eliza's service, the girl increasingly burdened by the hopelessness of her predicament.
For all his detachment, like some otherworldly Jekyll and Hyde, Black's intentions are unquestionably evil. The house is dark, shadowed, Eliza performing her chores as the baby grows within her, her fears exacerbated in this monstrous place, her only companion the dim-witted, disfigured Mary. Yet Mary is strangely kind, with her clumsy attempts to communicate. There is something unhealthy in this home, the sense of menace growing with the child in her belly. Trapped in a web of confusion, Eliza casts about for a means of escape, her natural instinct to survive her circumstances. As her original antipathy toward Mary morphs slowly into a grudging affection, Eliza realizes that there are more dangers afoot in Black's household, her innate intelligence whispering in her ear, "run".
What are Mr. Black's intentions? What will happen when her baby is born? And how can Eliza escape the grasping aggression of Edgar Pettigrew?
Murky and atmospheric, Clark's London is dingy, dirty and filled with the contradictions of class and circumstance, the future as obscure as the so-called scientific treatise Black pens to rationalize his experiments. There is little cause for hope in Eliza's dank corner of London, save the notice of a French bookseller who offers the promise of a better future. Clark's powerful novel reeks with indefinable menace, the two women victims of conditions they struggle to define, imagination fueled by fear. Black personifies the ultimate victimizer, the unfettered ego of a man fascinated by the very qualities of the women who so baffle him, ascribing his own twisted lusts to what he fails to comprehend, but manipulates for profit. Monsters come in many guises. To scientific pretenders like Black, the marrying of those of low class to his research may bear the promise of a reputation before others of his ilk. To those who endure such overweening pride and unconscionable cruelty, he is the monster. In this acute study of human nature, pride and greed, Clark once again mines the underbelly of London for her treasure: innocence, men and monsters. Luan Gaines/2007.