Drugs, dominance and exploitation tale resonates in today’s world

Caroline Hunter reviews The Pharmacist's Wife, by Vanessa Tait. Published by Corvus.

Rebecca Palmer is thrilled to have married Alexander, a handsome pharmacist, and to reside at a smart Edinburgh address, but her youthful expectation of wedded bliss is soon extinguished.

This dark tale, set in Victorian times, is an unravelling of innocence that charts Rebecca’s growing disillusionment and unwitting drug addiction.

Alexander’s ambition to invent a new wonder drug surpasses all else, especially as he has no moral centre to speak of. That, and his predilection for sexual deviance, gives Rebecca a crash course in disappointment and powerlessness. Her descent into heroin addiction at her husband’s hands is  a commentary on men’s dominance over women.

What better way to control a wife than to bend her mind. A drugged woman is a compliant woman. Echoes of a modern male celebrity, perhaps?

Other female characters are also at the mercy of unscrupulous men, and any who get close to Rebecca have their lives destroyed. The plight of servants and fallen women in the Victorian era and the hypocrisy of the judicial system that should have protected them from abuse are also underlined.

It sounds bleak, but there is the possibility of a #Time’s Up moment.  Rebecca might be rendered physically helpless by her husband’s manipulation, but her intelligence and outrage are powerful weapons, if she can only find the strength to use them.

Tait balances the evil-men/helpless-women narrative with a couple of male characters who represent decency and the ability to redeem themselves. The opportunity to escape and the prospect of revenge offer Rebecca the chance to sidestep the clutches of victimhood.

The Pharmacist’s Wife confronts a gender power struggle, one which at first appears to have a predetermined outcome. The battle  has definite resonance in this day and age.

- Caroline Hunter is an ODT sub-editor.

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