On 8 January 1697, a young student at Edinburgh University, 20-year-old Thomas Aikenhead, was executed for blasphemy. This was the last execution in Britain for such an offence. Richardson’s novel is based around this historical event, but Aikenhead is merely one of four major characters. We first meet young Thomas as a boy of six, when the lives of his family and those of Dr Robert Carruth and his wife Isobel first intersect. After an interval of 14 years, their paths cross again, and this turns out to have a major impact on the doctor and his wife.
The novel is constructed of two parts, each with alternating narrative voices recounting the story: Dr Carruth and young Thomas in the first part; Isobel Carruth and the morally ambiguous Mungo Craig, Thomas’s university friend, in the second. The first chapter is superbly written, portraying in a striking manner the autopsy of a pregnant woman by Dr Carruth and his senior colleague. Thus the reader is drawn into the action and engaged in the lives of the characters in a unique way.
Overall, the novel provides a vivid portrayal of 17th-century Edinburgh, the religious tensions of the times and the strict control of the kirk over every aspect of people’s lives. It is pre-Enlightenment Scotland, still in thrall to religious fanaticism, where ownership of atheistic books and any questioning of religious doctrine can lead to severe punishment, even death. The characters are well drawn and sympathetic; however, the supposed tensions between Dr Carruth and his wife Isobel, emphasised in the summary on the back cover, are never realised in any depth and only vaguely alluded to. Indeed, their relationship is neither fully nor convincingly drawn. This, however, makes for a small flaw in an otherwise well written and compelling novel.
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