Based on the 1726 story of a British woman who birthed rabbit parts, Dexter Palmer’s Mary Toft; or, the Rabbit Queen brings the past to life with authenticity and unexpected relevance.
The novel opens as Zachary, an apprentice, accompanies his master, surgeon John Howard, to a traveling exhibition of medical curiosities. Shortly afterward, Howard’s patient, Mary, becomes an attraction of her own after the strange birthing. Her reputation follows her to London, where the king summons Howard, Zachary and other surgeons to investigate her as a scientific and preternatural specimen.
The narrative unfolds largely from Zachary’s perspective. Well-off and educated by his town’s standards, Zachary is nevertheless an adolescent, both child and man. The son of a zealous minister, he is also under the tutelage of a John Locke devotee and skeptic. When his new friend Anne, the exhibitioner’s daughter, exposes him to London’s secret haunts, he seems innocent and parochial.
Palmer’s previous two novels, Version Control and The Dream of Perpetual Motion, were literary fantasies, playing with time travel and futuristic technology. In Mary Toft, Palmer reaches into the past for imaginative insights into today’s conundrums. Its antiquated language enhances the characters’ genuine believability. Their sentiments aren’t relegated to a bygone era; rather, they address contemporary audiences directly about present-day issues, namely, how a hoax (aka “fake news”) turns into fact.
Palmer depicts London as a sprawling monster city gobbling up the countryside’s economy and land. Its hustle and bustle conjure current, not just 18th-century, conditions. The novel’s portrayal of motherhood as a woman’s most valued asset also raises the question of how far, in many ways, we haven’t come.
A zesty blend of bawdy entertainment and thoughtful coming-of-age story, Mary Toft tantalizes the contemporary conscious as its truth-seeking characters wade through truth-defying circumstances.