It’s been a while since a book exceeded my expectations, but somehow The Way of All Flesh by Ambrose Parry managed to leave me pleasantly surprised, and wanting more! This was an atmospheric, dark, and gritty crime novel that really knew how to grab me as a reader.The novel takes place in the winter of 1847 in Edinburgh at a time where medical sciences are evolving and everyone is trying to pounce upon new and innovative medical means. It is no surprise that the novel takes place in Edinburgh as during this period, Edinburgh was at the forefront of medical advancements.The story consists of two main characters Will Raven and Sarah Fisher.
The story opens up with Will Raven who is a young medical apprentice, finding his prostitute friend Evie dead under suspicious circumstances. Things go from bad to worse when he gets his ass whooped and his cheek slashed by money lender thugs before arriving to live at the household of Dr Simpson and begin his medical career. He doesn’t make a good first impression that’s for sure.
Helping him in this discovery is Sarah Fisher, a young and intelligent housemaid who aspires for a career in medicine. This is however difficult, as during this period (and even now), society is misogynistic and scared of women reaching the same heights as men and in turn eclipsing them.As the story goes on, and Will and Sarah work in tandem, we begin to find out that Evie’s death is part of a bigger picture and this is only the beginning.
The way the author was able to make Edinburgh feel like a character in itself was brilliant, from its underbelly, brothels, bars, shops and also the Scottish dialect. It switches effortlessly from old Edinburgh where poverty is rife and shady shit is happening behind the shadows. For example, in contrast to this we have New Town which is basically where the rich and higher up people live. I felt the city of Edinburgh in itself was a character and truly came alive.Some of the main underlying themes throughout the novel are social status and money, while also exploring ethical questions and religious beliefs.
Considering the time period I’m not surprised as a lot of gruesome and questionable things are done and said too!Medicine at this time was very dark and not like what we have today, especially childbirth which the book explores in great detail. I for one am really glad I wasn’t born during this time. There were many men during this time, powerful men who attempted to rise to the top of medicine at any cost, even if it meant harming their patients.
This is something that Ambrose Parry explores greatly.However, to have lived in a time where medicine was advancing rapidly would’ve been interesting to see. Chloroform for example, was first discovered in Edinburgh and aided greatly in anaesthetizing patients. This is something that Will Raven is in the middle of exploring with Dr Simpson. I actually learned so much just from reading this book. I never knew there were some doctors and religious folk against the use of anaesthetic during childbirth as they believed pain was necessary 🥴.
In terms of the characters, I really loved Sarah. She was headstrong and wanted to greatly make something of herself rather than just a housemaid.
She is such an intelligent character with a wonderful mind. Her aspirations of becoming something more really made me spur her on. I also loved her sarcasm and wit throughout the story. Will Raven was also a really interesting character. From the beginning you realise he has a dark past and the story slowly reveals what has happened throughout his life. I also liked how he really wanted to help women during childbirth. Many doctors during this time cared more for the title of being a doctor rather than helping patients. Will however truly cared about their wellbeing.
The side characters were also really interesting with many of them actually being real in some capacity. For example Dr Simpson who Will is apprenticing for, was a real life Scottish obstetrician working from his real famous residence of 52 Queen Street.
Overall, I really enjoyed this book and can’t wait to read the second book, The Art of Dying once it’s out in paperback 😊. I’d definitely recommend this if you enjoy crime novels and historical crime.
I would also like to mention there may be some trigger warnings! The book goes in depth when it comes to medical practices and abortion. These scenes are extremely detailed so please be wary.