Title: Eye of a Rook
Author: Josephine Taylor
Genre: Historical Fiction
Publisher: Fremantle Press
Published: February 2021
Josephine Taylor’s debut novel Eye of a Rook is a gripping read that handles issues concerning women’s bodies with compassion and honesty. Set in both modern-day Perth and 1860s London, Taylor’s novel follows the plight of two women—Alice and Emily—separated by time but connected by the pain of vulvodynia.
Eye of a Rook commences from Alice’s perspective in contemporary Perth as she battles an agonising pain. From the first line, ‘It hurts,’ I was hooked. As a reader, the pain Alice felt feels real to me. Although some might consider the details of the pain hyperbolic, the truth lies in the details. How the pain impacts Alice’s personal and professional life, and the lengths Alice goes to find any relief is both gripping and distressing to read.
The shift to 1860s London was not surprising, but the perspective shift to Emily’s husband, Arthur, was a shock! Instead of gradually shifting to Emily’s perspective, her voice is only heard through letters scattered throughout the book. As I read, I wondered why Taylor would tell a story concerning pain felt by women through a male perspective. But then, I realised how clever it was to use Arthur’s perspective. Men—as is shown in the book—cannot comprehend the pain, but Arthur, in a departure from the norm of attitudes in the 1860s, attempts to understand his wife. While Arthur believes the pain that Emily feels is real, his marriage starts to feel the strain when doctors diagnose Emily as ‘hysterical.’ Taylor weaves modern and past medical terminology into the piece, and as the reader you start to understand why such terms are no longer used. For instance, ‘hysteria’ is derived from the Greek word for womb; it is a gendered word placed onto women and nowadays it is considered an undermining and dismissive word.
One of the fascinating aspects of Taylor’s novel is her research into past procedures and experiences of women. As shown in the historical storyline, the women are silenced, her fate is decided for her, and she is labelled as ‘dirty’ and ‘hysterical.’ The medical journal details of how a woman is ‘treated’ for hysteria sent shivers down my spine. The cold and calculating manner women were treated—despite their recorded pleas for mercy—is horrific. Taylor does not overwork the medical journal information, but what detail is given is hard to forget.
In comparison to the 1860s storyline, in the modern storyline the women have more control; despite the pushback from medical professionals and people in their lives, Alice and several other women (who also battle vulvodynia) are able to assert their need to explore and battle the pain. In comparison to the past, the women are not seen as dirty; however, the disbelief that women receive from medical practitioners is still an ongoing issue. Alice details the scepticism she receives from doctors and her husband. Reading Alice’s struggles with her inability to sit in a car properly or relax and enjoy a meal is disturbing, but to read Alice’s struggles alongside the disbelief levelled against her is infuriating.
Taylor delves into issues surrounding vulvodynia: pain, treatment, sex, and the impact the condition has on work, everyday living, and relationships. Eye of a Rook directly battles and describes pain and experience most would brush over. The two storylines joined by the mutual pain Alice and Emily experience is a beautiful, gripping, and unforgettable read.