The year is 1793. 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 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.
‘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.’
C. J. Sansom
‘Unusual, gripping and emotionally complex – I loved this book.’
‘A powerful and unsettling novel, both fascinating
and infinitely strange’