The Warlow Experiment
A Sunday Times fiction book of the year
A Times Book of the Year
A Daily Mail Historical Book of the Year
‘An extraordinary, quite brilliant book’ – C. J. Sansom
‘Original and gripping’ – The Times
‘Powerful and unsettling’ – Andrew Taylor
‘Engrossing … compelling’ – The Sunday Times
‘Powerful, imaginative’ – Literary Review
What kind of person keeps a man underground for seven years?
And who would agree to be part of such an experiment?
Herbert Powyss lives on a small estate in the Welsh Marches, with enough time and income to pursue a gentleman’s fashionable cultivation of exotic plants and trees. But he longs to make his mark in the field of science – something consequential enough to present to the Royal Society in London.
He hits on a radical experiment in isolation: for seven years a subject will inhabit three rooms in the cellar of the manor house, fitted out with books, paintings and even a chamber organ. Meals will arrive thrice daily via a dumbwaiter. The solitude will be totally unrelieved by any social contact; the subject will keep a diary of his daily thoughts and actions. The pay? Fifty pounds per annum, for life.
Only one man is desperate enough to apply for the job: John Warlow, a semi-literate labourer with a wife and six children to provide for. The experiment, a classic Enlightenment exercise gone more than a little mad, will have unforeseen consequences for all included. In this seductive tale of self-delusion and obsession, Alix Nathan has created an utterly transporting historical novel which is both elegant and unforgettably sinister.
BBC History Magazine Best Historical Fiction of 2019
Original and gripping ... builds to a satisfying and fittingly macabre climax. -- Antonia Senior * Times * Rich period detail and grippingly peopled subplots about the era's radical insurgency and reactionary repression add engrossing depth to this compelling tale of a ruinously backfiring experiment. -- Peter Kemp * Sunday Times * Original and beautifully written, this is a meaty, gripping novel of obsession gone sour -- Elizabeth Buchan * Daily Mail * Smart and darkly entertaining -- Jeffrey Burke * Mail on Sunday * Powerful, imaginative ... convincingly reflects the vernacular of many of the most important characters ... It is Nathan's scrupulous objectivity that enables the complexity of her characters to emerge ... For all the grim logic of its horrifying finale, what distinguished The Warlow Experiment above all is how Nathan ... treats her subjects with unfailing dignity and compassion. -- Paul Binding * Literary Review * A dark tale of obsession, solitude and the human mind ... brings together vivid characters to explore the vulnerable foundations of sanity, rationality and civilisation. * The Herald * Terrific * Saga * Praise for Alix Nathan: 'She cuts against cliche, against the received version, against cosiness. She leaves her reader restless, curious, wanting more. She is an original, with a virtuoso touch.' -- Hilary Mantel A powerful and unsettling novel, both fascinating and infinitely strange -- Andrew Taylor Unusual, gripping and emotionally complex - I loved this book. -- Sally Magnusson, author of The Sealwoman's Gift This is an extraordinary, quite brilliant book. It captures the language and mental framework of the late eighteenth century perfectly, the characters are beautifully drawn people of real depth, and we are shocked and chastened by how easily the scientific rationalism of the "Age of Reason" could turn into appalling cruelty and oppression. We are in the 1790s, and across the Channel the rule of reason has turned into the crunch of the guillotine; in England the Warlow Experiment shows us a less savagely dramatic, smaller-scale, but scarcely less cruel, example of the worship of Reason gone terribly wrong. -- C. J. Sansom
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