From the first sentence of the first chapter I was hooked: 'Afterwards, when I knew that I had not loved him at all, the shock was all in my stomach, like the feeling when you miscount going upstairs in the dark and climb a step that is not there'. Clare's style is descriptive without ever becoming flowery, shocking without (usually) aiming simply to shock and strongly focused through the physical world. Her narrator is expressive, honest and bold.
Eliza Tally is at once a shocking subject and a frequent event in 1718: she is pregnant but unmarried, a willing conquest of a wealthy young man who refuses to accept any responsibility. Her initial wanton behaviour prevents us from viewing Eliza as a real victim, but her subsequent treatment nevertheless provokes our sympathy. She is sent to London to work for an apothecary; in return for her service, he will remove her 'worm'. Or will he?
Unbeknown to Eliza or her mother, Mr. Black intends to conduct highly dubious research into 'maternal impression'. The author heightens the readers' awareness by prefacing each chapter with a written material related to the apothecary. This is where much of the most disturbing material in the book is gradually revealed, or suggested. This technique suggests that Mr. Black's mind may contain the real monsters and allows the reader to understand slightly more than Eliza.
In London, which is vividly described as a land of filth and movement in a manner that recalls Dickens, Eliza meets the dubious members of this strange household. As time passes, she becomes close to the 'idiot' girl Mary and to a bookseller who may offer her a chance of redemption. The kindly elder gentleman for whom she feels only gratitude reminded me again of Dickens and I hoped that Eliza would escape becoming merely a docile miss. Indeed, my own reservation about this story is the way in which Eliza seems, after a shocking opening, to become as conventional and safe as she can by the end of the tale.
Overall this was a fascinating read as it gave a real insight into the conditions endured by Londoners, women, children and the mentally disabled during the eighteenth century. The scientific ideas are shocking but well researched and intriguing. Eliza's frantic attempts to escape the darkened shop create a gothic atmosphere of threat, mystery and madness.