Touching Distance by Rebecca Abrams

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Touching Distance by Rebecca Abrams

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Category: Historical Fiction
Rating: 4.5/5
Reviewer: Ruth Price
Reviewed by Ruth Price
Summary: A compulsive fictional account of the discoveries of pioneering doctor, Alexander Gordon, set in the late 18th century. Written with style by an accomplished writer, this page-turner is not for the squeamish.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 416 Date: July 2008
Publisher: Macmillan
ISBN: 978-0230015555

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This terrific first novel by Guardian columnist Rebecca Abrams is a medical whodunnit, with its hero the redoubtable Alec Gordon, in search of the mysterious disease which is killing women a few days after childbirth. Set in a brilliantly-realised Aberdeen in 1790, Abrams draws the reader effortlessly into the historical world of this period and place, while protagonist Gordon's search for the mysterious killer, just out of reach, is as thrilling as the autopsy-heavy crime novels of Patricia Cornwell, with detailed anatomical descriptions and medical observations, not to be read while munching a ham sandwich (and not bedside reading for the pregnant).

While period detail appears authentic, this novel never reads like a thesis. The characters and their motivations, both murky and moral, are skilfully brought to life. I was cheering on Alec Gordon as he painstakingly drew groundbreaking conclusions that alienate him from his self-interested colleagues, superstitious midwives and prejudiced patients, while jeopardising his medical career. Readers will be reminded of superbugs like MRSA, so despite its historical setting, the theme has a very contemporary feel.

The intriguing sub-plot focuses on Gordon's troubled wife, the secretive, overly-genteel Elizabeth, whose early life in Antigua and its associations with the slave trade have left her scarred, needy and ashamed. As Gordon throws himself into his work, the cracks in their relationship and Elizabeth's fragile grip on sanity reach crisis point as her own pregnancy progresses, threatening her health, both her own, her daughter's and her unborn child.

I also loved the exotic and authentic-sounding vocabulary of this novel, too (rowp, whigmaleerie, awfy), and Abrams' ear for an accent - Fit ye gouping at? Nivver seen a brak winnock afore?What are you staring at? Never seen a broken window before?. Abrams gives each character their own distinctive voice and personality.

My only minor quibble is the introduction of a love interest for Gordon in the form of midwife Janet Anderson. The character is neatly drawn – but he apparently visits her when he is supposed to be visiting his brother many miles away, so there seems to be a bit of a plot hole there, unless I am missing something.

I enjoyed the concluding Author's Note, which succinctly describes the historical events and brief biographies of the major characters, with information on the disease and its effects today.

Thanks to Pan Macmillan, the publisher, for kindly providing The Bookbag with this work from a very talented writer.

Further reading suggestion: If you like this book, you might also enjoy The Grand Slave Emporium: Cape Coast Castle and the British Slave Trade by William St Clair, which touches on some of the same themes, or Death In Hellfire (John Rawlings Mystery) by Deryn Lake, a historical crime novel with a medical theme, both works focusing on a similar time period.

Booklists.jpg Touching Distance by Rebecca Abrams is in the Top Ten Historical Fiction Books.

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