Possibly my worst read of 2013

PhysickBookI’m not going to beat about the bush on this. The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane is one of the worst books I have read all year.  Not the absolute worst, but certainly only  a whisker away from the bottom of the pile.

But before I explain why I’ve taken such a dislike to this book, here is a brief synopsis of its plot.

The novel is set in Massachusetts in the summer of 1991. It features the young, aspiring Harvard graduate student Connie Goodwin who intends to spend the summer researching for her doctoral dissertation. Her plans are thrown awry when her mother asks her to handle the sale of  a long-abandoned house in Salem that once belonged to Connie’s grandmother. In the house Connie discovers a seventeenth-century Bible and hidden inside, a key and a small fragment of parchment bearing the words Deliverance Dane. Connie duly embarks on a quest to discover the identity of Deliverance Dane and the location of a rare book of physick.   In doing so she discovers a personal connection to the Salem witchcraft trials of 1692.

1876 illustration of Salem witchcraft trials. Published under Creative Commons licence

1876 illustration of Salem witchcraft trials. Published under Creative Commons licence

Fact and fiction are woven together in this book through a dual time-frame narrative — in between the story of Connie’s quest, we experience scenes in the household of Deliverance Dane and in the jail where she awaited trial.  Deliverance Dane did actually exist — she was one of many women condemned as a witch though, unlike nineteen other women,  she escaped the hangman’s noose.

In the hands of a more experienced novelist, this could have been an interesting take on an infamous period in history. But this is Katherine Howe’s debut novel and sadly her inexperience is evident.

First of all the character of her protagonist isn’t that convincing. Here we have a girl who, right at the start of the book, wows a group of leading academics with her encyclopaedic knowledge and insightful interpretation of historical themes and issues. She has spent months amassing data from the past and yet  we find only a few pages later that she is astonished to discover that up until the seventeenth century (one of the periods she has studied) the word receipt actually meant recipe.  Maybe she should have watched some cookery programs on TV instead of reading academic  tomes?

But there was an even earlier moment at which I rolled my eyes in disbelief. If you’d pitched up on the doorstep of a seventeenth century house (having first had to virtually hack your way through creepers and other vegetation to get the door) and discover it has no power or phone and is inches deep in dust; would you want to stay the night? No, neither would I. I hazard a guess that most girls in their early twenties also wouldn’t trade it for the comforts of their flat in Cambridge. But not our Connie. She not only stays the night, she makes it her for the summer.

If characterisation isn’t this book’s strong point, then neither is the writing style. The flashback scenes to the 1680s and 90s are, on the whole, evocative of the period but the modern day sections are riven with cliches, inconsequential detail about the character’s clothing and dry dialogue. And there are also some dreadfully clunky sections where the author tries to impart some factual information but can’t quite manage to do it seamlessly.

I’m conscious that all this sounds rather harsh criticism of someone’s first foray into the fictional world but actually I think the fault lies with the publisher and editor for failing to identify where improvements could have been made or maybe even suggesting that the book would have been so much better without the modern day hocus pocus quest.

About BookerTalk

What do you need to know about me? 1. I'm from Wales which is one of the countries in the UK and must never be confused with England. 2. My life has always revolved around the written and spoken word. I worked as a journalist for nine years then in international corporate communications 3. My tastes in books are eclectic. I love realism and hate science fiction and science fantasy. 4. I am trying to broaden my reading horizons geographically by reading more books in translation

Posted on November 19, 2013, in Book Reviews, historical fiction and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink. 19 Comments.

  1. I can’t believe you slogged on to the end! You should get an award for perseverance and your ability to withstand pain 😉

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  2. Excellent review – it is so disappointing when something which promises so much delivers so little, those kind of jarring inaccuracies that you mention drive me mad too. One to avoid I feel.

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  3. Like Barbara what I can’t understand is that it found its way onto the NYT best seller lists. I can only think that the US audience is still so obsessed with the Salem trials that anything related to them sells. Having said that, I’ve watched the first two segments of the seminar session with her and at least there is more relating to the craft of writing historical fiction than there was in the Alison session.

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  4. I read this a few years ago and completely agree with your review. I also found it hard to believe that Connie didn’t know receipt meant recipe, especially as she was supposed to be a history student! I did think the historical sections were quite interesting so the book may have been better without the modern day storyline.

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  5. Ohh, the story sounds so nice, but yes, in the hands of a debut author, it could go terribly awry.

    Strange how such poorly written books go on to become bestsellers.

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  6. I wasn’t a fan of this book either, but I can’t remember why. In fact I can’t remember much about this book at all – not a good sign!

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  7. It sounds from your review that the author could have benefitted from the imput of a good editor.

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  8. Such a shame because as you say the subject and time period sound so promising. I do like reviews that articulate exactly what the reader didn’t enjoy.

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  9. I agree wholeheartedly. Nice review. I also think you are correct in finding fault with publisher and editor– someone needs to guide a first time novelist and protect her from herself. I too found the 1991 part of the story the weakest. I wonder if the reason the publisher took this on was because it had to do with witches — and the occult is a hot topic right now. By how, one wonders, did this book make it to the New York Times best seller list? Unless one looks at some of the other books that make it there.

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    • This book made it to the best seller list??? Unbelievable. It’s frustrating to see that happen when there are so many other more talented authors who are struggling to make a living.

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