What’s it all about?:
Sarah Gilchrist has fled London and a troubled past to join the University of Edinburgh’s medical school in 1882, 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.
What did I think?:
First of all, a huge thank you to Tinder Press for approving my request on NetGalley to read this extraordinary novel in exchange for an honest review. I saw Wages of Sin initially on Twitter and it ticked all the boxes for me as a reader. It’s a work of historical fiction (tick), set in Edinburgh (tick) in the Victorian era (tick) that involves a strong female lead character (tick) dealing with a mysterious murder (tick). With so much going for it, there is always the anticipation that it might not be as great as it sounds but luckily I had no worries at all on that account. This book was a fantastic and thrilling debut novel and a truly fascinating look into women in science at a time when it was slightly frowned upon in an arrogantly patriarchal society.
Our main character is Sarah Gilchrist, a highly intelligent woman who dreams of being a doctor but has to leave London after a scandal threatens her standing in the world. She becomes a medical student in Edinburgh and has to struggle on a daily basis with not only the derision of the male students but also the attitudes of her fellow women scholars who become suspicious of her past. Sarah works her fingers to the bone – studying, completing practical and written assessments for her training and then (if that wasn’t hard work enough) assisting a friend at her medical clinic, helping the poor, needy and often “women of ill repute.”
This is where she comes across Lucy, a prostitute who comes in begging for help with an unwanted pregnancy, of course completely illegal in these times. She is turned away only to turn up dead on the anatomy table the next time Sarah sees her. Sarah feels devastated at what has happened but also determined to unearth the secrets of her death, especially when she suspects foul play and discovers tenuous links between Lucy and a professor at the medical school. However, she is treading on very dangerous grounds as some people may desire the secrets that died with Lucy to remain buried and may not necessarily welcome Sarah’s interference.
The Wages Of Sin was an exciting, roller-coaster ride of a novel that had me hooked from page one. Kaite Welsh writes with such a canny eye for detail that you can sense everything in the narrative – the smells, the sounds, the sights and it is brilliantly gritty and difficult to put down once started. Sarah was a fantastic character who was flawed but inherently such a good person and I loved her dogged determination in getting at the truth behind an obviously grisly murder. One of my favourite things about this novel though had to be learning about what female medical students had to suffer when studying to become doctors. They went through abominable treatment being mocked on a daily basis for their choice of career and the lack of confidence in what they could achieve was quite honestly, disgusting. Thank goodness times have changed! For a debut novel, this is an amazing piece of work and so beautifully written. I thoroughly enjoyed every page and cannot wait to see what Kaite Welsh does next.
Would I recommend it?:
But of course!
Star rating (out of 5):