The Alchemist's Daughter is above all a beautifully told story, but like all of McMahon's books that I've read, it's a lot more than that. At the centre of the story is Emilie, the product of her father's experiment to raise her as a 'pure' alchemist to carry on his work. Cut off from the world, she is a first-class natural philosopher with absolutely no concept of basic things, like how to make choices, how to understand the consequences of her father's lifestyle on the people who live on his estates, no idea even that she is a beauty. Naturally, Emilie falls hook line and sinker for the first man who comes her way, and naturally he's a baddy! Emilie, deep in lust, becomes pregnant and hands herself and her inheritance over to her fortune-seeking husband, a man with a passion for unusual collectibles. Emilie quickly discovers that she is one of them, that she has lost her father and her life, and soon loses her baby.
The rest of the story is about Emilie's voyage of discovery. Who is she? What is her past? Who is her husband? Her life unravels, as does that of her tenants, as does her tender relationship with the local priest, whom she quickly realises ought to have been the love of her life. The loss of her child makes her slightly mad. She turns to alchemy in a desperate attempt to restore the world as it once was.
This is a brilliant story, as I've already said. It's a very moving story, seeing Emilie struggle to come to terms with the loss of her child. It's a story that makes you mad, seeing her vain, flighty husband destroy so many lives while she is powerless to stop him, and it makes you frustrated too, because McMahon keeps Emilie true to her upbringing. There is no lion emerging from the frail feminine vessel, she doesn't roll her sleeves up and fight patriarchal power on its own terms - she turns to the one weapon she has, alchemy, and reading this is even harder, because of course we know it's not a weapon at all. Or is it? I turned the last page with a smile on my face, expecting an ending, only to discover that was the ending. It couldn't have been any other way - or it could have, but that would have been a cop out - and though I was gutted that the book had come to an end, it is that rare thing, a brilliant book with a brilliant ending.
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