Saturday 24 November 2012

Ami McKay: The Virgin Cure Review

A major departure from the usual books reviewed here - but a book that I'm delighted I read and that I'm happy to recommend to you.

The second novel by a very promising Ami McKay, this is a tale of the fight for survival by a 12 year old girl in the poorest parts of 19th century New York. It's a sad but uplifting tale, it's sympathetic without being over-emotional or cloying -- read it and see.

Moth was born to a soon-departed father and a mother with Gypsy blood. She dreams of her father's return, she dreams of riches and glamour. Her more prosaic mother fakes fortune-telling when the neighbours have money, succumbs occasionally to the demands of Cowan, the rent collector, and tries to disabuse Moth of her "fancy notions". She even throws out a stray cat that her daughter has adopted with the excuse that "proper Gypsies don't keep cats".

When she's twelve, Moth is sold into service as a lady's maid. For a short while, Mrs Wentworth seems alright, though short tempered, then the physical cruelty begins, escalating rapidly. Mr Wentworth is nowhere to be seen: he apparently abandoned the house when his wife lost her temper and strangled their pet dog. Moth, with neither training nor aptitude, is a ready victim for the torture. She runs to her old home, only to find that her mother has used Mrs Wentworth's money to disappear, leaving behind nothing but debt and a useless old frying pan.

The butler (it has to be) persuades Moth to join him in stealing jewellery but her portion earns her merely coppers: an annoying if small weakness in the book - why does an apparently valuable piece not earn more? On the streets, all but destitute, she nearly falls foul of the evil Cowan: a smartly dressed girl rescues her and feeds her. Home to Mrs Everett's, Moth appears to have landed on her feet. Alas, she's in one of the vile establishments which proliferated at that time - raising young girls to be suitably virginal victims for the lusts of rich perverts. For some, it's a better life; Moth dreads the day that she will be deflowered.

Thanks to a time acting as shill for a freak show owner, Moth's fate is put off. Then, in a cruel twist, Mr Wentworth appears at Mrs Everett's and is greatly taken with the 12 year old. She commands a high price but nothing to bother Wentworth, as cruel in his insensitivity as his wife was in her madness. One night, harsh and black, another promised, Moth runs to the sanctuary of a young female doctor. Here she manages to take some control of her fate and set up a better life.

So, serious issues addressed and, by the sound of the above, not much cheer. Yes and no - the issues are addressed without sentimentality or mawkishness; the cheer is to be found in the fight for survival by a courageous child, warmed by her interpretations and dreams. The actual writing is a pleasure to read - Ms McKay is a talented author who paces her tale very well indeed.

Who would read this? An intelligent, older teen girl, an adult. It'll probably be thought of as "women's fiction" - a shame as that will deprive one gender of a good read. I'd be happy to find this under the Christmas tree.

Why "The Virgin Cure"? There was a belief that intercourse with a virgin would cure a male of syphilis. It didn't.

Intro image credit: By Plot Spoilerderivative work: Plot Spoiler [CC-BY-SA-3.0], via Wikimedia Commons The pear tree planted by Peter Stuyvesant, an early memory for Moth.


Ruth Cox aka abitosunshine said...

I, too, would be happy to find this book under the Christmas tree! Great review of Virgin Cure! I am adding this to my TBR list for sure.

Raintree Annie said...

I have not read this and it sounds a very interesting book. Excellent review Paul.

Richard H said...

I can always rely on an informative review here :)

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