MARY TOFT; OR, THE RABBIT QUEEN – Dexter Palmer (2019)

Mary Toft; or, The Rabbit Queen

My love for Version Control, Dexter Palmer’s previous novel, is no secret. It was one of the best book I’ve read in 2016. It’s the only time travel novel I know that doesn’t short circuit, maybe because it’s not primarily a time travel novel to begin with – but something more akin to a near future Jonathan Franzen book. So when I saw this new one advertised, I pre-ordered it instantly, and started it the moment it was delivered to my door: that’s how high my expectations were.

Mary Toft; or, The Rabbit Queen, Palmer’s third book, is not speculative fiction. It’s a historical novel set in 1726, about something that really happened and yet reeks of magic: Mary Toft, a farmer’s wife, confounded England’s medical community by giving birth to seventeen dead rabbits. The rabbits aren’t whole though – it’s usually just a head, some legs and a bit of intestines. To the 21st century reader, it’s immediately clear this must have been a hoax, so Palmer doesn’t rely on magical wonder for tension.

What we get instead is a book dealing with the psychology of collective delusions & expectations that guide perception – an epistemological tale indeed. A book about Truth. Add to that a focus on the human penchant for the dark, and you get a book that’s right up my ally.

Yet I was not fully convinced. Or at least – my expectations were not met, and the book proves its own point. Had I read this book without reading Version Control first, my reaction to it would have been different, but I’m still not exactly sure how…

Right now, I would give it 3.5 out of 5. Solid & interesting, but not spectacular. Not something I’d recommend 100% – although people that love historical fiction should check it out for sure. Had I not read VC, I might have rated it a mere 2.5, or a 3, or – paradoxically – even a 4, who knows. I’m really a bit on the fence about it. Palmer has earned a lot of credit with VC, and so I read with a sympathetic eye, forgiving the book’s flaws more readily. And yet, at the same time my judgement was more harsh, because of the standard VC set.

I should stop talking about VC already. This is a very different book, and it should be judged on its own merits. The difference shows Palmer’s versatility as a novelist: his prose completely differs from that in Version Control – less contemporary, more suited to the period he describes. It’s apt, but a bit forced as well.

That gets me to the book’s biggest flaw: I could say the same about the theme. I think Palmer spoon feeds it. On numerous occasions the themes are explicitly pondered upon, and the conclusions are almost verbatim in its pages. I would have left more to the readers to figure out – figuring it out is not that hard anyway: this kind of epistemology is not quantum science.

“Any reasonable man would admit that we have no way of perceiving truth other than our eyes and ears and memories and instincts. As so the truth must, in the end, be a matter of consensus.”

To be fair, it’s not so overdone as to truly annoy me, but it’s not to my taste either. I did like how Palmer – a black man himself – tied the book’s themes to racism & how the few black people that lived in London were perceived in the 18th century: “What would it be like to be seen as a signal of the strange if one was not strange to oneself?”

Altogether, the book’s philosophical foundations didn’t satisfy my hunger. And also some of my other expectations were not met. I would have thought Palmer would do something with the preternatural hoax – a literary trick, just like he used time travel in Version Control. Yet the story remains linear & straightforward, without any real surprises. The hoax will come out eventually, and characters will have to face up to their naivety. Predictable as it is, Palmer does manage to draw the reader in – no mean feat.

One could argue the core of the book is not perception, but the human appetite for the dark. In many ways the centerpiece of the story is a visit of Zachary – a 14-year old surgeon’s apprentice who’s the main focal character – to a clandestine horror show somewhere in London. Both emotionally as philosophically it was dead on – some humans indeed regrettably perceive life as a zero sum game – and this scene alone was worth the price of admission, but I will not say more & spoil it.

What’s left to say? Yes, as many reviews have pointed out, this is also about country side vs. city, about male vs. female and about science vs. religion. Mary Toft is rich enough, but at 310 pages there’s not that much room to achieve real depth on all of its accounts. The characters are well drawn for sure, and there’s a dash of comedy of manners in there too: how could that not be, with some of the King’s surgeons in powdered wigs?

Some might object that Mary is just a prop – we hardly get to know her & her motivations – but it is fitting: this book is about our reaction to the Rabbit Queen, not about Mary herself. As such, she offers the hope of resisting facts. That’s a contemporary, 21st theme for sure – I don’t have to mention fake news.

But Mary Toft surpasses the political – it is about human emotions first and foremost. It’s like a line in Nick Cave’s Bright Horses, the second song on his new album: “We’re all so sick and tired of seeing things as they are” – that line is as much about fake news as it is about his unwillingness to accept the death of his son. There’s tremendous potential grace in a denial of facts.

I will read the next novel Palmer publishes – but not right out of the box.

10 responses to “MARY TOFT; OR, THE RABBIT QUEEN – Dexter Palmer (2019)

  1. I found https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/6758332-the-dream-of-perpetual-motion difficult (or perhaps incomprehensible to me). Have you read?

    Liked by 1 person

    • No I haven’t read it. From what I can gather online, it totally doesn’t appeal to me, and it looks like his debut is yet again totally different from this or VC. I have to say neither VC or Mary Toft are difficult at all, so your experience shouldn’t scare you for VC.

      It seems his debut is overtly wrought, maybe the result of a youthfull urge to show off?

      Like

  2. Huh, I actually feel Cave talking about the general need of humans for “something more” – which more often than not turns out to be a form of deceit, or self-deceit. I do like your honesty here – I’ll definitely read Version Control, but this – I will remain wary 😉

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yes, sure, that reading is valid as well, it’s complementary the way I see it.

      But I do think the lyrics are also very, very personal, e.g. when he sings:
      “Oh, this world is plain to see
      It don’t mean we can’t believe in something
      And anyway, my baby’s coming back now on the next train”
      coupled with the line I quoted in the review, I read that as him stubbornly believing his son might come back (in real life or in the afterlife).

      At the same time, the line “And there’s no shortage of tyrants and no shortage of fools” makes the song political too, referring to human self-deceit indeed, and today, that takes the form of Trumpism, etc.

      It also has to be taken in the context of the entire album, which is full of references to his loss.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Interesting! I thought that news hoaxes (like two-headed cows and such like) were a product of modern sensationalist journalism (if one can use this word for such trash), but I had no idea that the concept could be tracked to previous centuries, which makes me curious about this book, indeed.
    Thanks for sharing! 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

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