Publisher: Serpent’s Tail
Publication Date: 02/04/2020
Length: 304 pages
Genre: Historical Fiction | Gothic
The year is 1793 and Herbert Powyss is set on making his name as a scientist. Determined to study the effects of prolonged solitude on another human being, he advertises for someone willing to live in his cellar for seven years in return for a generous financial reward. The only man to apply is John Warlow, a semi-literate farm labourer with a wife and six children to support. Cut off from nature, Warlow soon begins losing his grip on sanity while, above ground, Powyss rapidly becomes obsessed with Warlow’s wife, Hannah.GoodReads
The experiment, a classic Enlightenment exercise gone more than a little mad, will have unforeseen consequences for all included. In this seductive tale of self-delusion and obsession, Alix Nathan has created an utterly transporting historical novel which is both elegant and unforgettably sinister.
Whilst scouring Waterstones for books to add to my monthly book haul in July I had a look at their monthly recommendations and found The Warlow Experiment. The brief description really intrigued me, purely for selfish reasons, as I workshopped something along similar lines when I was at university. I’m thrilled that I stumbled across this book as I would have hated to miss out on this novel.
Now, being honest, I didn’t feel like any of the characters (except perhaps Catherine) were particularly likeable, they each had their moments but they were often fleeting. However, given the subject of the book I don’t think they’re meant to be. Usually this would make it difficult for me to become so invested in a book, but Nathan has wonderfully crafted incredibly deep and complex characters in under 300 pages. I really liked the contrast of Powyss and Warlow, with Powyss conducting the experiment in a way that would keep someone like him occupied with the endless supply of books and the ability to just write. However, Warlow has worked all his life without stopping and isn’t educated enough to read and write with ease, an eventuality that Powyss didn’t plan for.
With all the different characters came a number of different perspectives to the story, not is this story just told from Powyss and Warlow, but also the servants, Warlow’s wife and Powyss’ friend Fox. Together, these stories weave a brilliant narrative that shows multiple impacts the experiment has and how it affects people other than Warlow. The change in perspectives could get a little confusing at times at certain points, but once you get to know the characters it becomes easier to identify the voices of whose narrative you are now in.
I think what stood out the most to me about this book was Nathan’s writing style. It didn’t feel like a modern book at all most of the time and it really captured the essence of a classic gothic novel. Whilst this novel is unique in its own right in terms of plot and characters, there were several instances that reminded me of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein which I loved. As a lot of these instances would contain spoilers, I will have to do a separate post on them for you to read after you have finished this novel. This novel poses a lot of interesting moral questions and thoughts on isolation and one that I feel definitely belongs on a college or university reading list at least.
The Warlow Experiment was a joy to read, through the dark themes of this novel and the madness that unfolds on each page. Before reading this novel, I thought if someone offered me money for the rest of my life to spend seven years away from people and just reading I would jump at the chance. Now, however, I would certainly think twice!