The Apothecary's Curse
We mere mortals have always been obsessed with the idea of immortality. With The Apothecary’s Curse, author Barbara Barnett taps into that fascination by bringing us the story of two men bound together by their inability to age. The tale revolves around the ideas of what it means to be alive and how having limitless time devalues the things we hold most sacred. But despite the interesting premise, the choppy and often inert narrative makes this book one I cannot recommend.
The son of an Irish court physician, Gaelan Erceldoune inherited from his father an ancient manuscript purported to be penned by Airmid, Goddess of the Healing Arts. When he contracts the plague in 1625, he uses one of the recipes from the manuscript to cure himself, only to find out later that he cannot die. At the beginning of the story he is more than 400 years old.
Gaelan’s path crosses that of Dr. Simon Bell in 1837. Simon’s wife Sophie is dying of cancer, which leads Simon to seek out the neighbourhood apothecary reputed to possess extraordinary medicines. The elixir that Gaelan prepares ends up killing Sophie. When Simon, hoping to join her in death, drinks the remainder, he stays alive. Over the next five years, as his suicide attempts fail one by one, Simon begins to suspect that something is amiss.
Meanwhile, an act of kindness towards a prostitute inadvertently lands Gaelan in the Bethlem Royal Hospital in London, the infamous psychiatric facility better known as Bedlam. For the next five years, the hospital’s proprietor Dr. Handley takes great delight in torturing Gaelan in the name of scientific advancement. During this time, Gaelan’s manuscript is lost.
When Simon hears rumours that there is an inmate at Bedlam with incredible regenerative powers like his own, he decides to investigate and is shocked to discover an emaciated Gaelan, looking barely human after years of torture and abuse. Over the next seventeen decades, the two men’s fates become inexorably intertwined.
For the bulk of the book, the story jumps back and forth in time between present-day Chicago and 1830’s London. I enjoyed the early London chapters in which the author fills in both Gaelan’s and Simon’s backgrounds and weaves the different threads together. The writing is dense and old fashioned, so it takes some patience to read. But the result is a definite sense of time and place that made those early chapters an immersive experience.
Unfortunately, the quality of the writing is not sustained for long and the later pages are characterized by stilted dialogue, awkward prose, and plot developments you can see from a mile away. This is especially true of the present-day sections, when the lack of a compelling narrative and interesting characters often causes the momentum to stall. There is a subplot involving a pharmaceutical company’s attempt to ferret out Gaelan’s secrets, and Gaelan and Simon’s quest to find Gaelan’s manuscript so that Gaelan can use it to reverse their conditions. But for the most part, these chapters mainly consist of the characters talking and throwing a bunch of scientific sounding words at each other. And when a romance finally develops between Gaelan and Anne Shaw, a geneticist working for the big bad pharmaceutical company, it feels more like an afterthought than the life-altering event the author clearly intended it to be.
In the end, I must say that while I enjoyed bits and pieces of The Apothecary’s Curse, as a whole it wasn’t interesting enough to hold my attention. For two people who have known each other for almost two hundred years, there is a lack of genuine affection in Gaelan and Simon’s interactions that I found glaring; and there are huge gaps in their histories that I found perplexing. With some tighter editing and better narrative choices, this could have been a very good book. But as it currently stands, it will have to settle for being merely satisfactory instead.