Saturday, October 23, 2021

Eye of a Rook by Josephine Taylor explores women's pain and health, past and present

Australian writer Josephine Taylor’s first novel is a psychologically penetrating and honest read that juxtaposes two women, one Victorian and one modern-day, who suffer from the same debilitating medical condition.

In 1866, newlyweds Emily and Arthur Rochdale visit the London office of a physician who proposes a drastic cure for Emily’s chronic gynecological pain. Emily and Arthur are despondent; she can barely function and has withdrawn from society, and he struggles to help her. From boyhood on, Arthur has strived to speak up for those who cannot, but he isn’t sure whether to trust the surgeon and his diagnosis of “hysteria.”

In 2009, a Perth-based academic, Alice Tennant, is struck down by the same disorder, which makes sitting excruciatingly painful and prevents physical intimacy with her older husband, Duncan.

Taylor places readers in the moment with Arthur, Emily, and Alice as they process the pain they all endure and how it changes their outlook on life. An emotional support system can make a big difference. Emily writes letters (which read as believably Victorian) to her sister-in-law, Bea, who provides reassurance and understanding. Alice sees many traditional and alternative medicine practitioners but finds few answers – this hasn’t changed over time – and Duncan’s patience soon wears thin. In researching the history of women’s health, however, Alice taps into a new vein of creativity.

Eye of a Rook dares to travel to uncomfortable places of the flesh and spirit, and does so with lyricism and visceral empathy. It beautifully describes landscapes, like England’s Peak District and the Australian countryside, and the mental respite they offer. Toward the end, the two timelines intersect in an ingenious way. The novel should prove validating for anyone suffering from an invisible illness, and eye-opening for anyone unfamiliar with vulvodynia, which is little-known but not as rare as one would guess.

This novel, for which the author's personal experiences provided source material, was published by Fremantle Press in Australia in 2021; I reviewed it for the Historical Novels Review, based on a personal purchase (it's sold in the US as well). In Australia, the price is $32.99 in paperback. Read more about the novel's background in the author's interview for The Nerd Daily.

Josephine Taylor is a speaker at this weekend's Historical Novel Society Australasia virtual conference, which I'm attending, though the time zone differences between here and Sydney meant I wasn't able to attend her session in person. Fortunately, everything is being recorded for viewing over the next few months.


  1. Wasn't the conference excellent. I did not get to her session either (and many more!) so I am looking forward to viewing them when they are available online. This sounds like a fabulous book. Shame I have not see it advertised much in Australia.

  2. The conference was superb. I'm looking forward to seeing the sessions I missed. I'd always wanted to attend an HNSA conference, and having it be virtual made that possible. It is a fabulous book. That's too bad it hasn't been very visible in Australia. I hope it will get some more attention.