A Poisoner’s Tale – Cathryn Kemp

Published: July 2, 2024

Review by Books By Your Bedside

Thanks to NetGalley and Bantam for the advanced copy of this title in return for an honest review.

Earlier this year I read The Book of Secrets by Anna Mazolla, about an Italian ‘witch’ in the 1660s dealing in apothecary. It was based on a true story that I hadn’t heard of. And then this book came along it seems to have had the same influence. How interesting that a story unheard of is adapted twice in the same year? And how lucky I am that I’ve been allowed to read and review them. I was a bit concerned that I would be forever comparing them, but apart frrom a couple of moments (mainly at the start), it read completely differently.

Cathryn has excelled at the research here. Everything is so meticulously written that I can only imagine the amount of research it took to tell as close to the truth as possible. Her storytelling is brilliant and has managed to find a new angle of the story.

Cathryn has created such an inviting (if not always pleasant) world for the reader to get lost in. You can feel everything around you, the people, the smells, the environment, the death; it’s so rich.

A quick interlude- an applause for the cover please! I read an early digital copy but I am desperate to get a physical one just so I can have that gorgeous cover on my shelf.

What I really enjoyed was this sense of family, community, and longevity. This is a secret held by women and passed down the generations and through friends and strangers. This illegal practice that could find any number of them facing the noose is kept close to their hearts and it really brings the characters together.

I am really loving reading books with strong women during a period where women were to be seen and not heard, and to follow rules and b passive, especially in regards to men. And that’s what Cathryn has given us here. Some women are more bold than others, but they all in their own way are strong, powerful women.

I did find it a little slow to begin with. Nothing majorly and it didn’t impact my enjoyment of the book or my will to read on. But I’ll just say it’s very detail heavy at first which some like and some don’t. But it doesn’t last too long and then you’re in. There are also a few places where it felt a little too rushed, but overall I think the pacing felt right.

There is a jump in time which I quite liked as it gave us a deeper narrative and a deeper look at the characters across the years. I know some people find it difficult to get their hands round that, but I thought it was a good narrative choice.

There are some unpleasant scenes, which is probably to be expected, and some bits I wasn’t expecting. They can be hard to swallow and so I would just not that it isn’t all sunshine and rainbows, and it’s more than just poisoning. But I think the story as a whole benefits from these scenes. Cathryn hasn’t hidden from the brutality of the time and the brutality of men (and some women) at the time.

It’s mostly told in the first person present tense was a bit different for me. It’s not something I’ve really paid attention to, but now I think of it, I do tend to read books written in the third person, and so it took me a while to fully get to grips with that narrative. I think there are pros and cons here. Pros because it really gives us that insider knowledge, the first hand feelings of the events. But by having it written from just that person’s POV, do we really get enough from the other characters?

I initially thought this was a debut, but having done a quick Google, I don’t think it is. But it does appear to be a debut historical novel. Either way, it is very well accomplished.

Having said all of that, this is a strong book full of great promise. Well written, generally well paced, interesting characters, great settings, layered narrative, so much detail and depth, impressive researching skills, and an interesting and fun book to get stuck into. Highly recommend for historical lovers.