One of my favorite books of 2019 was “Mary Toft; Or, the Rabbit Queen” by Dexter Palmer. I unfortunately did not get it read in time to include it on my Top Shelf picks, so I’m writing this review to give it some well-deserved exposure.
The novel is based on a hoax that occurred in the early 18th century when a woman claimed to be birthing dead rabbits. The two main characters are the surgeon for the small English town of Godalming, John Howard, and his apprentice Zachary Walsh. As they are unable to provide a medical answer, more doctors come from London as word spreads.
Palmer, whose background is in science fiction, is no stranger to having characters deal with seemingly strange and fantastic events. His characters feel authentic to their time, but are still relatable and very human. They make the town and the city of London feel lived in, and keep the reader grounded for the offbeat tone and unconventional story. There are a few gory surgery scenes, which can be a plus or a minus, depending on the reader (it was a plus for me).
The book explores a time when ideas were shifting from a belief in the Divine Right of Kings and superstitions to the Enlightenment ideas of reason and rationality. It demonstrates limits and cruelty, and the conflict created through changing times, as you see an England on the verge of going from an agrarian society to an industrialized sprawl. It also takes a good look at the human desire for spectacle and the way that we revise our own histories and tell ourselves stories to make sense of not only what happens to us, but to understand our own actions in hindsight.
The book balances a unique blend of the seemingly disparate genres of weird fiction and historical fiction, and I highly recommend it to readers of both genres, as well as to readers looking for something unique and challenging.