Sunday, October 02, 2011

THE VIRGIN CURE by Ami McKay (2011) From the A.A. Knopf Canada ARC, 351 pages

Ami McKay's debut novel THE BIRTH HOUSE was a national bestseller and longlisted for the Dublin IMPAC Literary Award. Her second book THE VIRGIN CURE has been eagerly anticipated, and with good reason.

Set in the 1870s in Manhattan, McKay unravels the tale of Moth Fenwick--the daughter of a Gypsy fortune-teller who sells her into service to the sadistic Mrs. Wentworth when she's only twelve. Before then Moth runs through tenements with local hooligans, whose "names were made from body parts and scars, bragging rights and bad luck." In order to escape to a better life beyond the abusive walls of the posh Wentworth home, Moth forges an allegiance with the butler, Nestor, who offers a kindness that "would require everything I had to give."

Moth does escape, but ends up being lured into an altogether different form of service as a whore in a brothel run by Miss Everett, who provides girls who might offer her incurable and tainted gentleman clients not only companionship, but also "the virgin cure." The one good piece of luck that befalls Moth at "The Infant School" is meeting Dr. Sadie, a progressive physician who has a social conscience and tends to the prostitutes and the poor in the Bowery. Dr. Sadie is the moral heart of the novel and based on McKay's own great-great-grandmother who wrote her graduating thesis on syphilis and the deadly myth that a gentleman with the disease could cleanse his blood by deflowering a virgin.

Interspersed with diary entries, advertisements, newspaper articles and period quotations (from songs, books and poems) that lend an enhanced authenticity to the narrative, THE VIRGIN CURE is a rapturous tale told from the perspective of a survivor who makes an indelible impression in your heart.

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