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Gothic Alchemy

by Heidi Anne Ward
July 24, 2006 | APPEARED IN VOLUME 84, ISSUE 30


The Alchemist's Daughter, by Katharine McMahon, Crown, 352 pages, $23.95 (ISBN: 978-0-307-23851-1)

England, 1725. Fire expert and Royal Society fellow Sir John Selden and his daughter Emilie are beginning an alchemical experiment based on Paracelsus' theory of palingenesis, the possibility of resurrection of life from charred remains. There are no more fitting guiding metaphors than flame and rebirth for Katharine McMahon's "The Alchemist's Daughter," a novel in which destruction and redemption are inexorably intertwined.

On the surface, "The Alchemist's Daughter" might appear to be merely a new twist on the gothic novel; but for all its emotional intrigue and romantic scenery, it's also a window into one of the most fertile eras of scientific thought, a protofeminist treatise, and a dark fairy tale of death and resurrection. Well-researched and vividly rendered, the book breathes modern life into the mannered Age of Reason. Sir Isaac Newton and his brethren closely inform Selden's hermetic laboratory, and fashionable London is rendered in a whirl of sumptuous silks and glittering jewels that can't quite mask the stench of desperation and corruption beneath.

Emilie's tale unfolds in her own voice, both dreamily descriptive and precise in its observations, and we soon discover that she herself is yet another object of intense study. Like a homunculus in a sealed retort, the motherless child has been raised in the lab by her reclusive father, who dreams of creating in her a vessel for all his knowledge, a pure natural philosopher undistracted by worldly concerns. An enthusiastic student and laboratory assistant since she was old enough to walk, Emilie reveres and fears her teacher in equal measure. While she and her father debate current theories and prepare experiments both scientific and alchemical, he keeps a record of his prodigy's successes and failures in what she calls his "Emilie Notebooks," hauntingly off-limits, of course, to their subject.

But the fragile "crucible" in which they live is shattered in Emilie's 19th summer, when the world comes to insular Selden Manor in the form of Robert Aislabie, a cocksure young merchant seeking expert advice on fire protection for his ships' cargo. Emilie's tale waxes by turns giddy then dark as her first elated brush with sexual passion trips a swift series of events that ultimately compels her to leave Selden and the only life she has known. McMahon's sensuous prose is at its best, and Emilie's voice most sympathetic, when describing this collision of forces in the young savant's world; the breathless intensity of first love is detailed with a scientist's clarity of observation, painting a surreal yet authentic account of the bittersweet end of childhood.

Her new life takes Emilie to London, where-newly wed and mistress of her own home, indulged and yet essentially stripped of her life's work-Emilie finds herself adrift in the alien world of the upper class. She's a profoundly brilliant but naive young woman at the mercy of unfamiliar social mores, plotting rivals, and the vagaries of the human heart. For all her education, Emilie writes, "My vision was so filled with books and fermentation and hypotheses that I had no time for the study of human beings other than of their anatomy and the circulation of their blood." When her refusal to accept the limitations of her choices finally forces a crisis, Emilie's path circles home to a much-changed Selden Manor, where she is compelled to uncover the mysteries of her own unorthodox history in her father's mysterious notebooks.

Rich in both historical and emotional detail, "The Alchemist's Daughter" moves seamlessly between the worlds of the mind and the heart, creating a sometimes stark, sometimes searing, but always intelligent and resonant chronicle of the human passage from innocence to experience.

Heidi Anne Ward is a writer based in Oakland, Calif. She is currently working on her first novel, a historical thriller involving voodoo in New Orleans.



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