The moment I read the first few sentences of this glorious book, I knew I was going to love it – and I did. The writing is lyrical and lovely, the story fascinating and clever, and the history that weaves through its pages brought to life in simply stunning ways. But what really makes this utterly engrossing novel so captivating is the premise that underpins the entire narrative.
While most of us either grew up with Jonathan Swift’s satirical travelogue/novel, Gulliver’s Travels, or know of the extraordinary adventures its protagonist, ship‘s surgeon, Lemuel Gulliver underwent through various popular culture retellings (eg. the movie starring Ted Danson as Gulliver) not much thought at all is given to his wife or family who were left behind. Well, Chater changes that. This is the story of Mary Gulliver and her two children and how they survived in Lemuel’s absence on upon his unexpected return.
The book is set during a time when women were completely subordinated to their husbands and society was patriarchal in every sense. When Lemuel is believed dead after three years missing at sea, Mary Gulliver not only provides for her family through her formidable skills as a healer and midwife, but excels. Imagine then, after attaining liberty, repaying her selfish husband’s debts and raising her children, her husband returns, expecting his household to revert back to the way it was – with him at its head and his every need and whim met. Furthermore, though he’s ill, he won’t be shifted from telling incredible tales of what happened to him while he was away, stories that threaten to undermine and even destroy the reputation Mary has, through hard graft and determination, restored.
This is the story Chater gives us – from the point of view of Mary and her daughter (who grew up adoring her fantasist father and his wild stories and even wilder promises to her) with all its psychological and emotional twists and pain. In this tale, Gulliver is not the heroic survivor of ship-wreck and centre of a wondrous tale, but a narcissist who is unable to see the damage his return, and inability to understand the changes that have been wrought while he was away, is causing. Recruiting whoever he can to take his part, Gulliver reverts back to his old ways undermining not only the livelihood Mary has striven to build, but his very family.
It is a beautifully, heart-achingly told tale – realistic and raw. I was completely swept into this story and didn’t want to part with it. I adored Mary, her daughter, Bess, too. The battles within the Gulliver family are echoed in the professional one that Mary is flung into as well, as midwives struggle for their independence and right to practice without the interference of male physicians and their shocking new technologies.
I couldn’t put this book down and, as soon as I finished, downloaded Chater’s other novel, The Lace Weaver, chastising myself that I have only discovered this gem of a writer now. I cannot wait to read what else springs from her marvellous imagination, what else she grounds in such well-researched history. Magnificent.