Tuesday, 24 September 2013

The Alchemist's Daughter by Katharine McMahon

Autumn has come to Brussels. The leaves are changing colour and the air is more damp. Today, however, as I write this we have a wonderful sunny day with blue sky and clear air. Over 22 C I would say. A book suitable for this time of the year is the Alchemist's Daughter. I got it on a book swapping day and it has been on my shelves for some time. A fascinating book, full of the earth and dampness of the autumn and with a story that takes twists and turns all the time.

Alchemy is an influential philosophical tradition and from antiquity onwards it has claimed to be the precursor to profound powers. The definitions are varied but some of them more common ones historically are the creation of the fabled philosopher's stone, the ability to make gold or silver and the development of an elixir of life. It is today recognised as a contribution to modern chemistry and medicine but differs from them in its inclusion of Hermetic principles and practices related to mythology, magic, religion and spirituality (these definitions from Wikipedia).

This description fits well in describing this book. It includes, science, philosophy, religion and magic. It tells the story of Emilie who is the only child of John Selden, know as the alchemist. He comes from a long line of scientist and his all life is spent within the sphere of natural philosophy and alchemistry. He educates his only daughter to go in his footsteps.

The story starts when Emilie is around 19 years old. We get to know that her mother died when she was born and she has been raised by her father who has taught her all he knows about science and alchemy. She has been his own scientific experiment. Her father has - as the scientist he is - kept an 'Emilie Notebook' where everything about her is written down, but she is not allowed to see it.  She

has lived very secluded in the countryside in the family, rather old fashioned, estate. Her life changes totally in 1725 when she and her father try out their most daring experiment in trying to bring life into dead matter. Before the experiment is finished she meets the two other men that will have a bearing in her life. Having had no education on social capabilities and the functioning of society she makes some hasty decisions that changes her life forever. It not only brings her to be separated from her father but it also leads to the secrets of her birth and background.

The story is set in the beginning of the 18th century and centres around the scientific world and glimpses of London and countryside life. I mentioned autumn above and here through the life of Emilie we come close to nature, to earth and water, air and fire, all part of alchemy. It smells of autumn. It is an excellently written historical novel with a different touch. You suffer with Emilie. She has been brought up as a scientist and only read books related to this subject. Her lack of social competences and also to obey her father leaves her vulnerable to the real world.  Finally she wakes up and starts taking charge of her life and the people she loves.

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