Truth is in the eye of the beholder as 18th-century British people try to decide whether a series of freakish births represent a miracle or a fraud.
The third novel by Palmer (Version Control, 2016, etc.) is as different from its predecessors as those two were from each other. Historical fiction, it is based on a real-life hoax perpetuated by Mary Toft, a farmer's wife living in the small English town of Godalming whose claims to be giving birth to rabbits fooled the doctors attending her. It isn’t the hoax itself that interests the novelist—the machinations and motivations—but the responses of those she fooled: first her doctors; then the residents of Godalming, where the gossip spreads; and finally greater London, where the patient and her physicians are summoned to the court of King George. The primary perspective throughout the novel is that of 14-year-old Zachary Walsh, son of Godalming's preacher and apprentice to the local doctor. He wrestles with the central duality of the novel, between the faith of his father and the scientific reasoning of what was then modern medicine. There will be other dualities—men and women, city and country—as the novel mediates among different versions of reality, ones that cannot be reconciled, through the eyes of an innocent young man who lacks experience in the ways of the world but quickly finds himself challenged by a rash of experiences. “Come to London,” invites a young woman with whom he falls in love, as love also becomes a question of faith or delusion. “Perhaps there are still other versions of myself I have to show you; versions of yourself you haven’t seen.” At the center of the novel, Mary herself is given little space to express herself, limited to two short chapters (“Mary’s Dream,” “Mary’s Soliloquy”), otherwise functioning as a receptacle from which doctors pull rabbits, or pieces of rabbit. Ultimately, this is a novel that attempts to illuminate “the slippery nature of truth,” when everything from God to reality is up for grabs.
Deft, droll, and provocatively philosophical, a novel about how much we don’t know about what we think we know.