A Poisoner's Tale - 'Thriller of the Month' Book Review by Perspective Magazine

Perspective Magazine – Thriller of the Month

Published: June 2, 2024

Perspective Magazine – Thriller of the Month

A Poisoner’s Tale, Cathryn Kemp’s fiction debut, reconstructs the life and death of Giulia Tofana, a notorious female poisoner in seventeenth-century Rome. Tofana, under the guise of selling beauty preparations and medicines, sold (or, if they were very poor, gave) women a poison with which to murder their abusive menfolk. The men’s deaths initially went unnoticed because the city was racked by plague, but the number of deaths of apparently healthy men eventually attracted the attention of the city’s authorities. Tofana and her associates were caught by the Inquisition and, after interrogation and torture, executed. Imaginatively building on contemporary rumours and a few known facts about Tofana, Kemp weaves a compelling tale of female victimisation, resistance and rebellion in a society which granted women few rights, little protection and limited access to justice.

The novel begins in 1659 with a prologue in which Giulia and her co-conspirators mount the scaffold (in fact, it is far from clear that the historical figure on which the character is based was executed, with various sources claiming she died in 1651, 1659, 1701 and, improbably, 1730). Giulia, the novel’s primary narrator, likens the spectacle of her execution to “stepping on to the stage, the audience awaiting my first line”, and the story that follows – with its cast of whores, witches, abused wives and corrupt priests and cardinals – could indeed form the plot of a bloody Renaissance tragedy.

The teenage Giulia learns how to make the poison – referred to as acqua – from her mother, according to a secret recipe that has been passed from mother to daughter over generations. Living together in Palermo, her mother explains that she uses it to help women, victims of male violence, “who can’t help themselves any other way”. After her mother is executed for poisoning her own husband, Giulia flees to Rome, where – aided by a group of accomplices – she too makes and dispenses the fatal acqua to women trapped in bad marriages and abusive relationships.

Kemp’s chief protagonist is an attractive and engaging figure, encouraging us not to think too hard at first about the morality of her trade. However, as increasing numbers of apparently healthy men start dying, the sheer scale of the poisonings brings her activities to the attention of the Inquisition. Giulia sells the poison to a young noblewoman who murders her older husband so she can marry a younger, more attractive lover. A courtesan poisons her cardinal lover.

As the Inquisition begin to close in, Giulia becomes increasingly reckless, her ledger recording ever-greater quantities of acqua dispensed for free to the women of Rome. A note of moral ambiguity, perhaps quietly there all along, begins to emerge as what seemed initially to be a form of unofficial justice starts to resemble an indiscriminate killing spree. Contemporary records suggest the poisoners may have been responsible for nearly 600 deaths. Were all the victims violent abusers?

It is this unresolved tension that makes A Poisoner’s Tale such an enjoyable and fascinating read. Kemp’s Giulia is a compelling and strikingly modern character and it was hard not to hope that she and her accomplices, their murderous enterprise notwithstanding, might somehow evade the fate revealed in the prologue. “Murderer or saviour?” the strapline on the book’s cover asks, adding “You decide”. This reader remains undecided.

Article by: Katherine Muskett
Katherine Muskett is a part-time academic, freelance writer and tutor
© Perspective Magazine, published 1 June 2024
Available from Amazon UK: A Poisoner’s Tale by Cathryn Kemp