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The Wages of Sin by Kaite Welsh

BOTTOM LINE: Surprisingly topical with sharp social commentary that fits even today

Genre: Historical Fiction
Publication Date: 14 March 2017
Source: Publisher via NetGalley

Synopsis from the Publisher:

“Sarah Gilchrist has fled London and a troubled past to join the University of Edinburgh’s medical school in 1892, the first year it admits women. She is determined to become a doctor despite the misgivings of her family and society, but Sarah quickly finds plenty of barriers at school itself: professors who refuse to teach their new pupils, male students determined to force out their female counterparts, and—perhaps worst of all—her female peers who will do anything to avoid being associated with a fallen woman.

Desperate for a proper education, Sarah turns to one of the city’s ramshackle charitable hospitals for additional training. The St Giles’ Infirmary for Women ministers to the downtrodden and drunk, the thieves and whores with nowhere else to go. In this environment, alongside a group of smart and tough teachers, Sarah gets quite an education. But when Lucy, one of Sarah’s patients, turns up in the university dissecting room as a battered corpse, Sarah finds herself drawn into a murky underworld of bribery, brothels, and body snatchers.

Painfully aware of just how little separates her own life from that of her former patient’s, Sarah is determined to find out what happened to Lucy and bring those responsible for her death to justice. But as she searches for answers in Edinburgh’s dank alleyways, bawdy houses and fight clubs, Sarah comes closer and closer to uncovering one of Edinburgh’s most lucrative trades, and, in doing so, puts her own life at risk…

An irresistible read with a fantastic heroine, beautifully drawn setting, fascinating insights into what it was like to study medicine as a woman at that time, The Wages of Sin is a stunning debut that heralds a striking new voice in historical fiction.”

My Thoughts: I don’t know whether it is a case of every novel being timed perfectly to have the most meaning in today’s political climate or a greater awareness of certain issues in general, but it does seem as if every novel I read lately is particularly important in illuminating the history behind current political viewpoints. The Wages of Sin certainly fits that bill. With its discussion of women, particularly poor women and their lack of choices when it comes to earning money, it covers women’s rights or lack thereof during the Victorian Era. Plus, Sarah’s foray as one of the first female medical students highlights the deep misogyny society still holds for women in traditionally male roles.

What I was expecting in this debut novel was not what I received. I expected an interesting story that provides a glimpse into life as a female medical student when women did not do that sort of thing. What I received was a compelling social commentary about so much more than just women in medical school. The mystery kept me intrigued, but it was Sarah’s past “sin” and her growing awareness of the dichotomy between her life of privilege versus most other women that made me sit up and take notice.

The Wages of Sin is not the story of a poor little rich girl becoming enlightened. This is a story meant to shine the spotlight on repressive societal norms and the need to rethink one’s position within that society. Sarah’s troubled past is pertinent to her time volunteering at the charitable hospital in one of the city’s worst slums and the patients she encounters there. Her eagerness to become a doctor is just another layer to the story during which she must reevaluate every rule she ever knew.

There is tremendous growth to Sarah which is wonderful to behold. To say much more would be to spoil a key plot point but one that is essential for understanding Sarah’s drive and commitment to helping the poor. She is not a perfect heroine however, and it is not a perfect story. In spite of her emancipation proclivities, Sarah is still someone who requires rescuing. Even worse, she has a tendency to let her emotions guide her rather than her intellect, which serves to prove the point of those who oppose the modernization of women. Prone to jumping to conclusions because of her active imagination without asking enough logical questions, her assumptions are not just annoying but also lead to a series of unnecessary confrontations that place her into the very same scenarios about which she was warned. She is a perfect candidate for the use of reverse psychology.

Still, Sarah’s weaknesses prove their own point in that they show how easily it is to accept societal norms at face value as well as how difficult it is to break free of them when it is the only thing you know. Then there is the issue of having others accept your breaking of those norms. Much of what Sarah observes and experiences as a women in the Victorian era will be familiar to modern female readers, and that is the most chilling aspect of the novel. That we continue to have the same discussions about reproductive rights and other feminist issues over 100 years later speaks volumes about societal norms and who establishes them. It also highlights the ongoing uphill battle we face for the next generation of girls.

The Wages of Sin is a pleasant surprise in that it has more gravitas and depth than I expected. It is much more than a murder mystery set in Victorian Edinburgh. It presents a somber portrait of women of all classes in that era and the stifling confines of what was deemed polite society. Sarah might be somewhat ruled by her emotional state, but she is a woman of action and that speaks volumes to her commitment to her beliefs. Kaite Welsh‘s debut novel makes her an author worth noticing.

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