The Grateful Water by Juliana Adelman

Writing.ie | Book Reviews | Crime/Thriller | Historical Fiction
The Grateful Water

By Catherine Neville

The Grateful Water by Juliana Adelman

Dublin city, 1866, is the backdrop for this debut novel by Juliana Adelman.  The city is sweltering under an intense heat that emphasises the smells of decay and poverty that pervade certain parts of the city.  Denis Doyle, a butcher by trade, stops on Richmond Bridge one evening and notices a small bundle lying in the mud on the bank of the river.  Going to investigate he finds it is in fact the body of an infant and he immediately alerts the police to his discovery.

Detective Martin Peakin, a policeman who leads a solitary life but has ambitions to rise up the ladder in the constabulary, is tasked with investigating the case of the dead infant.  An inquest is held to determine how the baby died and the verdict is returned as ‘infant murder’ of a baby boy.  Infanticide is a common enough occurrence in the city at that time with rumours of ‘baby farmers’, women who will take your baby from you and in some cases get rid of it altogether.  While Peakin ‘didn’t believe that women should vote or own property…neither did he believe that unwanted babies were the fault of the women who birthed them.’ But someone has to be held to account for this infant’s death, no matter the circumstances that led the mother to dispose of him.

The pressure is on to find the woman responsible, not only from Peakin’s superiors but from the newly formed Society for the Protection of Infant Life.  Peakin is afraid that the endeavours of this group to expose the underbelly of brothels and houses of ill-repute in the city might also uncover his own less than spotless past.

A year earlier, in May 1865, Anne Mulhall is packed off to live with her widowed aunt when her mother dies, leaving the way open for her father to marry the woman brought into their home to look after Anne’s sick mother.  In the stifling surroundings of her aunt’s house on Mountjoy Square Anne passes the time playing piano and reading to her aunt while avoiding the latter’s attempts to marry her off to a respectable suitor.  Anne finds companionship in the new laundry maid Rose who watches as her mistress strikes up a relationship with a distant cousin of her aunts, a young man of little means.  The relationship has dire consequences for Anne and it is Rose who comes to her assistance when she thinks all is lost.

Adelman writes in a fluid style that carries the story along and makes this an easy read despite the subject matter.  The novel is an indictment of how women were viewed and treated in the late nineteenth century.  They were the property of their fathers and then their husbands.  They were not expected to have a voice or to use it.

This is a city full of secrets as Peakin observes as he goes about his investigation.  He notes that the inhabitants of Dublin are ‘happy to know the worst about everyone else while hiding their own sins.’

The senses of taste and smell are evoked throughout the novel, from the animal odours and tang of blood on the butcher to the inquest that smelled of ‘river water and tasted of tainted pork.’  Away from the grandeur of the wealthy squares, ‘the sulphurous air of rotting vegetable peelings and…sickly sweet tallow’ permeated the streets around Smithfield where ‘lane after lane spewed filthy children, men in ragged waistcoats and barefoot women with lined faces and babies held to their hip.’

The Grateful WaterThroughout the novel the river Liffey flows towards the sea carrying all manner of things that have ended up in its depths, a metaphor for the secrecy and darkness prevalent in the city.

This is an accomplished debut novel and one I would highly recommend to readers who enjoy historical crime fiction.

© Catherine Neville

Order your copy of The Grateful Water by Juliana Adelman online here.

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