Review Blog

Aug 29 2012

The book of madness and cures by Regina O'Melveny

cover image

John Murray, 2012. ISBN 9781848547063
(Age: Senior secondary - adult) Recommended. This novel, set in the late sixteenth century, is both a collection of charming stories about medieval medical practice and a picaresque journey. The main character is Gabriella, a young Venetian and daughter of the renowned doctor Mondini who has left Venice to gather information for his proposed book about disease. Though she is a trained and practising doctor, Gabriella has been increasingly ignored by the medical establishment since her father's departure. When his final letter arrives, Gabriella decides that she will travel to find him. With two servants, Olmina and Lorenzo, and her medicine chest she begins a journey that, guided by her father's letters, takes her north through Padua, past Lake Costentz, along the Rhine and as far north as Edinburgh. They then turn south and travel through Spain to the deserts of Morocco. Along the way she gathers disturbing news about her father who seems to have been afflicted by madness. She meets many doctors, some of whom welcome and encourage her, others who distrust her as a woman. At times she dresses as a man for safety, especially when traveling through villages ravaged by the burning of witches. She falls in love several times but has to keep traveling on her quest for both her father and stories for her own collection of diseases and cures. She encounters the kind and the cruel, and experiences happiness and hardship. Eventually arriving in the arid land of Morocco, the source of cures outside her medical tradition, she discovers the truth about her father and a truth about herself. The novel has a fable like quality and gathers strength as it progresses. The action is interspersed with the stories about sufferers and cures, and vivid details about everyday life. The language is richly poetic with enough archaisms to sound historically accurate. The places she visits are described in little detail, but enough to make them believable, and the medical theories are not over-laboured. The novel is recommended.
Jenny Hamilton

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