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Summary and book reviews of Mary Toft; or, The Rabbit Queen by Dexter Palmer

Mary Toft; or, The Rabbit Queen

by Dexter Palmer

Mary Toft; or, The Rabbit Queen by Dexter Palmer X
Mary Toft; or, The Rabbit Queen by Dexter Palmer
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  • Published:
    Nov 2019, 336 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Callum McLaughlin
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About this Book

Book Summary

In 1726, in the town of Godalming, England, a woman confounded the nation's medical community by giving birth to seventeen rabbits. This astonishing true story is the basis for Dexter Palmer's stunning, powerfully evocative new novel.

Surgeon's apprentice Zachary Walsh knows that his master, John Howard, prides himself on his rationality. But John cannot explain how or why Mary Toft, the wife of a local journeyman, has managed to give birth to a dead rabbit. When this singular event be­comes a regular occurrence, John and Zach­ary realize that nothing in their experience as rural physicians has prepared them to deal with a situation like this—strange, troubling, and possibly miraculous. John contacts sev­eral of London's finest surgeons, three of whom soon arrive in Godalming to observe, argue, and perhaps use the case to cultivate their own fame.
 
When King George I learns of Mary's plight, she and her doctors are summoned to London, where Zachary experiences a world far removed from his small-town existence and is exposed to some of the darkest corners of the human soul. All the while Mary lies in bed, as doubts begin to blossom among her caretakers and a growing group of onlookers waits with impatience for an­other birth, another miracle.

from CHAPTER III.

A Concerned Husband.

On October 13, 1726, the first day of the year that was chilly enough to compel John Howard to light a fire in his office, his first visitor was one Joshua Toft, a journeyman in the cloth trade.

The man was hulking and hirsute, and stood at the threshold of Howard's office, a faded, weather-beaten cloth cap clutched in his hands. His slumping posture suggested a diffidence at odds with his frame: with his stooped back and drawn‑in shoulders, he seemed as if he genuinely believed he was half his actual size. His eyes were at odds with the rest of him, twin glints of silver twinkling in the shad­ows cast by his hooded brows.

John closed the volume of Locke on his desk, putting it aside with a mixture of relief and regret: he was finding Locke's pedantic defini­tion of infinity to be deeply befuddling, but unpleasant as it was, his confusion had a cast to it that signaled an impending enlightenment. It would take him another morning...

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Reviews

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There's an ornate quality to Palmer's use of language that reflects the formalities of the period. It also feels in keeping with the air of dark whimsy suited to a story fueled by the tradition of folktales. It's hard to believe events this provocative had been largely lost to time. By once again breathing life into Mary Toft's extraordinary story, Palmer gets to the heart of our enduring struggle to overcome the lies we tell each other — and the lies we tell ourselves — to appreciate our shared humanity...continued

Full Review Members Only (594 words).

(Reviewed by Callum McLaughlin).

Media Reviews

The Chicago Review of Books
I imagine the term “audacious” will be used often regarding Palmer’s newest work. Such a word is certainly fitting. Dexter Palmer is a bold and daring writer, and Mary Toft; or, The Rabbit Queen is a novel that captures his voice at its very best.

The New York Times Book Review
Palmer spins a cracking tale that, despite its disconcerting subject, is piquantly cheerful and compassionate.

NPR
Epistemology is a big pill to swallow in a work of historical fiction, but Palmer coats it with sure storytelling, a compelling voice in the form of Zachary, and a gripping mystery at the core of the story. And with the world still battling over many of the same issues of knowledge and faith today, the book rings uncannily relevant.

Publishers Weekly
Palmer evocatively captures the period...But more impressive are the novel's inquiries into the human concerns of wonder, denial, and belief...Palmer skillfully and rewardingly delves into the humanity at the heart of this true historical oddity.

Booklist (starred review)
A brilliant work...Like the historical fiction of Hillary Mantel or Caryl Phillips, Palmer does not shy away from the depravity of the past. Expertly utilizing an actual bizarre historical event to explore faith, reason, and the foundations of our current economic system, this exhaustively researched and dexterously constructed novel is another triumph to add to Palmer's incredibly diverse corpus of works.

Kirkus Reviews (starred review)
Deft, droll, and provocatively philosophical, a novel about how much we don't know about what we think we know.

Author Blurb Nicole Galland, author of I, Iago
A beautifully written, slyly profound meditation on perception and reality. I relished each immersive scene, each detail. I wanted to sit and discuss with the characters their beliefs about the world. Reading it, I was torn between wanting to gobble it all up quickly or savor it over time.

Author Blurb Kelly Link, author of Get in Trouble
Mary Toft is wonderful! The kind of novel that you want to read and then discuss with other readers. But then Dexter Palmer is a writer like Hilary Mantel or Kate Atkinson, able to move between genres and time periods, by virtue of the almost supernatural sympathy he is able to invoke for his characters and the sense of the worlds they inhabit.

Author Blurb Kevin Brockmeier, author of The Brief History of the Dead
Mary Toft...is vividly composed and audaciously imagined, filled with characters who do battle against a world that perceives them as strange—or who, conversely, assume strangeness as a mask in order to induce the world to see them at all. It is yet another wonder in Dexter Palmer's cabinet of wonders.

Reader Reviews

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Beyond the Book

Exploiting the Unknown: Entertainment in the Georgian Era

Political cartoon featuring Tower of London Menagerie animals in cages called The anti-royal menagerie by William Henry Brooke, 1812A taste for blood and an unfortunate willingness to exploit those considered "Other" are not wholly unique to the Georgian period, but their prevalence during the era cannot be ignored. By 1726, when the subject of Dexter Palmer's novel Mary Toft; or, the Rabbit Queen, claimed to have given birth to a rabbit, the concept of difference as a means of entertainment had been long established. To understand why her particular case was given so much credence, we must examine the wider social landscape that underpinned life at the time.

There was big money to be made from the spectacle of physical difference. With traveling sideshows and human curiosities regularly drawing huge crowds, people with deformities, disabilities and rare medical ...

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