The Alchemist’s Daughter

Written by Katharine McMahon

In lyrical prose, this novel details the life of Emilie Selden, a female scientist in 18th century England, squirreled away in her father’s laboratory on the ancient Selden estate. Despite her scientific knowledge, Emilie has never traveled beyond the village of Selden Wick, so her father is the only one surprised when she’s lured away from their scientific haven by her first brush with the outside world, personified by the dashing Mr. Aislabie. At first enthralled by London, Emilie soon discovers its darker side and longs for the peace of Selden Manor. She returns only to find that tragic events have laid bare secrets both long-hidden and devastating.

McMahon has created a work that delves into the souls of its characters, not only Emilie, but also her controlling, contradictory father and the quietly tragic village rector. McMahon has given her characters exceptional depth, and she taps into their feelings so adroitly that the reader is able to effortlessly share their tension, longing, disgust, love, and pain. The novel is written in the first person, and events are viewed through Emilie’s eyes; this only adds to the novel’s tension, as the reader can clearly see the inherent dangers naïve Emilie fails to recognize. The author also probes the complex mind of Emilie’s father, a seemingly domineering and cold man, through his “Emilie notebooks” – the running diary he keeps of his daughter’s life. McMahon’s atmosphere is perfect, from the crumbling country estate of Selden Manor to the squalid misery of London’s back alleys to the peaceful quiet of the rector’s study. In addition, the author provides fascinating glimpses into the lost “science” of alchemy, in the process adding words such as “phlogiston” to the reader’s vocabulary. One of the more thoughtful novels of this season, The Alchemist’s Daughter is highly recommended.