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A disquieting experiment in isolation

The Warlow Experiment by Alix Nathan (above) presents the collision of two worlds.
The Warlow Experiment by Alix Nathan (above) presents the collision of two worlds.PHOTO: JAN KLOS
The Warlow Experiment (above) by Alix Nathan presents the collision of two worlds.
The Warlow Experiment (above) by Alix Nathan presents the collision of two worlds. PHOTO: SERPENT’S TAIL

HISTORICAL FICTION

THE WARLOW EXPERIMENT

By Alix Nathan Serpent's Tail/Hardback/278 pages/$25.68/ Books Kinokuniya/

3 stars 


British writer Alix Nathan tells an unsettling tale in The Warlow Experiment, which is set in 1793 and inspired by a record she came across in the archives.

In an advertisement, a Mr Powyss offered £50 a year for life to any man who would spend seven years confined in isolation underground in the name of research.

The subject was to be put up in a commodious basement, given three meals as well as access to a cold bath, books and other desired items including alcohol and cigarettes.

Nathan was unable to find out how the experiment went but was so captivated by its premise that she reimagined the episode in The Warlow Experiment.

In it, Herbert Powyss is a wealthy bachelor and biologist content to while his time away in his suburban estate by cultivating exotic plants and flowers for research.

He remains uninterested in politics despite attempts by a high society acquaintance to update him on the turmoil and distrust towards conspirators in London as the French Revolution rages on.

But Powyss wants to leave his mark in social science and conduct research consequential enough to elevate his standing among his peers in the Royal Society in London.

He thus comes up with the experiment, which he names as "Investigation Into The Resilience Of The Human Mind Without Society".

Only one person applies to this radical experiment - semi-literate labourer John Warlow, a father of six. He is asked to keep a journal of his daily experiences.

The set-up quickly unravels into a look at what can go wrong when one man plays God over another.

The novel delves into a wide range of themes, including man's need for social interaction, the concept of marriage, fidelity and betrayal, the idea of a social contract, income equality and power, as well as mental illness.

Nathan creates a Gothic atmosphere, dark in its setting and its themes.

As Powyss bites the forbidden fruit in a fling, Nathan writes: "It was desire that had something of the excitement and sensuous pleasure he felt when he brought back a tree from Chelsea or Hackney, some new, unusual specimen ."

While atmospheric, the novel could do with better pacing. It is bogged down by its cast of bit characters - including Powyss' servants and maids, whose story arcs and motives do not feel adequately fleshed out.

Nathan also tries to set up a parallel between Powyss' story and the sociopolitical situation of the era, without giving the uninformed reader enough of a primer on the French Revolution.

Still, she does a great job in crafting a very disturbing story about the collision of two worlds, as represented by Powyss and Warlow.

If you liked this, read: The Hunger by Alma Katsu (2019 reprint, Transworld Publishers, $19.80, Books Kinokuniya). Hailed as "deeply, deeply disturbing" by horror maestro Stephen King, The Hunger is based on true historical events. In May 1846, a motley crew of 87 travellers left their homes in mid-western America for California, which was touted as the beating heart of the American dream. The ill-fated group, dubbed the Donner Party, soon turned on one another.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 20, 2019, with the headline 'A disquieting experiment in isolation'. Print Edition | Subscribe