Review Details

Review type: Book

Title: A Poisoner’s Tale

Author: Catherine Kemp

Publisher: Bantam Books

A Poisoner's Tale

Reviewed by: Sarah Deeming

A Poisoner’s Tale by Catherine Kemp

Sarah Deeming

Rome 1656: Two sicknesses are stalking the streets of Rome; the Plague and a clear liquid, four drops of which can kill a man. Guilia Tofana dispenses her poison for free to the oppressed women of Rome, the battered wives, the abused daughters, and the mistresses who are used and then abandoned. But even during this period of death, it is not going unnoticed that hale men are dropping dead with no symptoms to explain how it happened. Pope Alessandro VII and his Inquisition turned their attention to these unexplained deaths and hunted the murderers. Can they find Guilia before too many are killed?

A Poisoner’s Tale is an interesting book. From the start, we know that Guilia has been found and is due to be executed, so there’s no suspense about whether she gets away or not. Within the first few chapters, we have scenes of child rape, and throughout the book, there are graphic descriptions of abuse, torture and death. So enjoyable is not really a word I can use to describe it. However, it was impossible to put down. Knowing the ending meant I was tense throughout, wondering which mistake Guilia or her friends make is their downfall. It was like reading a car crash in slow motion, but lives were on the line.

A lot of research has gone into this story, enough that the author has listed her sources and thanked people in her acknowledgements for their help. This research paid off as the city jumped off the page; we weren’t just told about Rome during that period; we could hear, smell, and feel it. We have descriptions of journeys through Rome, what the women heard, saw and smelt as they went, as well as their growing sensation of being watched and a fear of the Plague that overarches everything. It is a very immersive read, which kept me lost in its pages for hours.

The story is told in two parts, Guilia’s and Alessandro’s, with Guilia being the majority point-of-view. Her story starts when she is around 12/13 when her mother teaches her how to make the poison, the acqua, but she is then executed for using the poison. We then jump forward 23 years to Guilia, following in her mother’s footsteps and giving the acqua out for free. Pope Alessandro’s point-of-view focuses on his realisation that there is something more in the city than the Plague killing people and his religious fervour at finding the murders. The contrast is stark as both feel they are doing the right thing, although Guilia sometimes struggles with the ethics of what she is doing. As a reader, I can see both sides.

I did have two complaints about the overall book, which are interlinked. Guilia has watched her mother executed for being a murderer, knows what it is like to be orphaned at a young age, and chooses the same path for herself and her daughter. When things get tight, and she’s worried they might get caught, instead of stepping away from the whole thing or leaving Rome for her safety and her daughters, Guilia continues distributing the acqua. However, I could overlook this as Kemp is restricted by the events her research has uncovered. She can’t have Guilia leave Rome and escape if that never happened. This leads me to the second related point; the pacing felt off. There were moments of action, of almost being caught or arguments about choices made or fear of missing friends, but then they carried on for the next few months before something else happened. The tension did not remain consistent.

The ending is poignant and brutal, and it made me find my own daughter and give her a hug. This is an emotively powerful book examining the treatment of women in the past and exploring their oppressed voices. Ultimately, this is a story about sisterhood and quiet, if deadly, rebellion against the patriarchy and how, through the sacrifices of those women who have gone before us, women have a stronger voice than before. Highly recommended, but be warned, it is not an emotionless read.

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