I do like a bit historical fiction and so I was really pleased to have the opportunity to read The Hemlock Cure by Joanne Burn. Huge thanks to Mille Seaward at Little Brown for sending me a gorgeous copy of the book to review. The Hemlock Cure is published by Sphere Books and is available now in hardback and ebook.
From the back of the book
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 that she studies from Wulfric’s forbidden 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 unspeakable peril.
And meanwhile another danger is on its way from London. One that threatens to engulf them all . . .
Based on the real history of an English village during the Great Plague, The Hemlock Cure is an utterly beguiling tale of fear and ambition, betrayal, self-sacrifice and the unbreakable bond between two women.
I thought The Hemlock Cure was a spellbinding read. Even though it’s set more than 400 years ago when life was very different in many ways, there is much to connect us to the characters in this book. The author transports us to Eyam which is a place you may well have heard of. In the 1665/6, the village effectively quarantined itself from the neighbouring Derbyshire towns to avoid the spread of the plague. I could easily identify with the villagers unease as they began to hear rumours of an illness which was spreading uncontrollably. We can all now understand that fear and dread as they realised it was coming closer and was then amongst them. Although the main characters in the book are fictional, there are real people who lived in Eyam at that time and their real lives are woven into the story.
This is a time when rumours of witchcraft were rife and where women were looked upon with suspicion and distrust. Mae is a clever young woman who wants to prove to her father Wulfric, the village apothecary, that she too can learn about the medicines he produces. He however sees her of little value being just a girl and not the son he once longed for. We find out more about Wulfric, a very religious man, through his diary and although he claims to be faithful to God’s teachings, we soon find out that he has dark secrets to hide. I liked Mae and often feared for her throughout the book but she proved herself to be strong and resourceful.
The story follows some other villagers too, such as Isobel the village midwife, and is a gently paced read, meandering between the different characters and their points of view and even following some to London where the plague is rife. Although the experiences of the residents of London and Eyam were quite different, their common fear of succumbing to the plague was evident. Rich or poor, good or bad, no family was left untouched.
The Hemlock Cure is a beautifully written book, rich in historical detail, and put me in mind of the writing of both Stacey Halls and Maggie O’Farrell. If you enjoy their books, I am sure you will like this one too. With its dark themes of witchcraft, religion, medicine and disease, I found this to be a captivating read.
About the Author
Joanne Burn was born in Northampton in 1973, and now lives in the Peak District where she works as a writing coach. Her first novel, Petals and Stones, was published in 2018. The Hemlock Cure is her second novel.