The Art of Dying by Ambrose Parry – a powerful novel of medicine, murder and more in Victorian Edinburgh

The Art of Dying by Ambrose Parry

This is one of the most vivid and atmospheric historical novels I have ever read. Set in Edinburgh, 1949, it mainly concerns the progress, challenges and downright dangers of practicing medicine in a city where early death was frequent and often unavoidable. It continues the story of the real pioneer of medical chloroform, Doctor James Simpson, and his fictional assistants Doctor Will Raven and former housemaid, the determined Sarah Fisher. In a city where professional jealousy and uncertainty about medical breakthroughs are rife, even a brilliant discovery helps fuel suspicion of a doctor who does not conform to the rules. The book follows the brilliant “The Way of All Flesh” by the same writing team of writer Chris Brookmyre and anaesthetist Dr Marisa Haetzman, but it is written in a way to stand alone as a novel which brings to life the world of respectable people with their own agendas and the poor who struggle with the basics of life. Will Raven is a recently qualified doctor who has fought his way out of a difficult background and aspires to make a name for himself, but fights with a certain wildness and people who make dangerous demands on him. My favourite character is the impressive feminist Sarah, elevated from a purely domestic role to an undefined associate with a desperate desire to learn, despite being held back at every turn by her gender. Enveloped by the consequences of a decision made in Will’s absence, she has much to cope with, but her ambition still motivates her, along with her loyalty to her supporter, Dr Simpson. I was very pleased to have the opportunity to read and review this special, vividly written book.

The novel begins with Raven and some of his friends fighting off a street attack in Berlin, where he has travelled as part of his tour of medical establishments. Typically he has to remove a bullet from his friend’s leg, but it is only later that he considers his other actions. He returns to Edinburgh to take up his new post with Dr Simpson, moving into his house and reintroducing himself to the rather chaotic household. Keen to begin his new role, he soon discovers the elements of his past will still seek to claim him. His greatest shock, however, is the change in Sarah’s condition which extend beyond her promotion from domestic servant. She maintains her ambition to be a doctor in her own right, but acknowledges that she will not be accepted for formal study. Inspired by a tragic patient, she nonetheless struggles with the knowledge that she may never be able to pursue her dreams. More immediately, she realizes that her mentor. Dr Simpson, is being unfairly blamed for a death within the medical world, and is keen to clear his name. Raven also wants to help in the investigation, but is distracted by thoughts of a new form of disease. As the narrative is interspersed with accounts of a woman with a unique history, it begins to be urgent to track down the truth at whatever the risk.

This is a powerful and effective novel which deserves to do well as its intensity lingers in the memory. It successfully evokes a setting and time of medical treatments which are not always effective despite the practitioner’s best efforts, and this book will be of great interest to those interested in the social history of medicine. The characters’ thoughts and fears are well recorded, and the world of Victorian Edinburgh vividly created in this memorable and powerful book.  

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