16 August 2019

Review: The Warlow Experiment by Alix Nathan

The Warlow Experiment by Alix Nathan book cover
RRP $29.99AUD
* Copy courtesy of Allen & Unwin *

The Warlow Experiment by Alix Nathan has the best premise I've read all year. Can a man live for 7 years underground without seeing another human face?

It's 1792 and Herbert Powyss is a rich middle aged bachelor living in Moreham House in Herefordshire. Powyss enjoys reading scientific papers and cultivating rare plants and vegetables in his vast gardens and greenhouses. He is essentially a man of leisure and learning.

Seeking mention in the scientific journals he reads and the accolades he dreams will follow, he devises an experiment, converts the cellar beneath his house into a fine set of apartments and places the following advertisement.
A reward of 50 pounds a year for life is offered to any man who will undertake to live for 7 years underground without seeing a human face: to let his fingernails grow during the whole of his confinement, together with his beard. Commodious apartments are provided with cold bath, chamber organ, as many books as the occupier shall desire. Provisions will be served from Mr Powyss's table. Every convenience desired will be provided.
To his disappointment, the advertisement attracts just one applicant. John Warlow is a rough labouring man who drinks, beats his wife Hannah and has trouble putting food on the table for his six children. He claims he won't miss seeing anybody for 7 years and is fixated on the guarantee of 50 pounds a year for life if he stays the duration of the experiment.

Warlow enters his lavishly furnished apartments in 1793 and is due to come out in the new century, 1800. Although semi-literate, Warlow is asked to write a regular journal and has ready access to as many books as he wants. There is a dumb-waiter that will provide food, wood, candles and other supplies.

Written in the third person with chapters focussing on different characters, we're given insight into Powyss, Warlow, Hannah (Warlow's wife) and several of the household servants. I definitely enjoyed Warlow's chapters the most. His thought process and experiences were transfixing and I longed to know what he was up to. 

Ironically, these same thoughts quickly begin to plague Powyss as he too becomes fixated on Warlow's existence just a few floors beneath his sumptuous library. Powyss assuages his guilt by reminding himself Warlow is a willing participant and focussing on how the money from his experiment is transforming Warlow's family.

I was eager for the experiment to work and for each of the characters to 'play their role' without messing it up. Unfortunately, accomplished author Alix Nathan had other plans. Powyss's experiment doesn't quite go to plan for a variety of reasons, and it reminded me just a little of the experiment failing in Frankenstein by Mary Shelley.

It was exciting to learn in the Author's Note that the author had based her novel on a real advertisement she stumbled across in the Annual Register from 1789 to 1814, and specifically the volume for 1797. 

Presented in a small hardback volume with a beautiful cover and stunning endpapers, I was easily transported back in time in this gothic exploration of solitude, scientific learning, mental anguish, transformation, love, penance and regret.

If you're at all intrigued by the premise, then The Warlow Experiment is for you. Highly recommended for historical fiction readers and fans of the gothic genre.

My Rating:

Would you like to comment?

  1. Sounds very different. Not sure if it is for me, though. Thanks all the same!

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    1. Thanks for reading my review anyway Davida. This book helped me complete the Historical Fiction Reading Challenge but I just wish the book had followed the successful completion of the experiment.

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  2. I’m not sure I would choose to read this, but it does sound interesting and I’m intrigued that it was inspired by a real ad.

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    1. I was fascinated by this too Shelleyrae. I wonder what happened during the real experiment. No doubt that's what inspired the author to write this version of events; to satisfy that curiosity. These days we have scientists living in isolation in preparation for populating the planet of Mars in the future. I guess we're still curious about isolation and the impacts it has on people.

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