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Review: The Wages of Sin, by Kaite Welsh
Pegasus, 2017. 290 pp. $26

Sarah Gilchrist has come to the University of Edinburgh to study medicine in 1892, the first year its doors have opened to female students, and her prospects could hardly be less promising. Her parents have exiled her from her well-to-do London home for “immoral behavior,” of which she’s entirely innocent.

The main building of the University of Edinburgh medical school, completed in 1888 (courtesy Kim Traynor, 2010, via Wikimedia Commons)

But no one knows how Sarah has suffered, nor, if they asked, would they believe her. In fact, no one treats her more cruelly than her family, putting her through unspeakably barbaric, criminal horrors that she relives in nightmares. Many people go out of their way to hurt and malign her, like her aunt and uncle, with whom she lives, and whose bullying she must accept or face further punishment. At least, Sarah can talk back to the male medical students who resent the women who’ve invaded their preserve, and sometimes, even her professors. But then there are Sarah’s female classmates, the very people who should have the most sympathy, who delight in persecuting her.

Welsh excels at many things in this, her first novel. Chief of them is how she re-creates the vicious social order that imprisons not just Sarah but all women in Edinburgh, most of whom lack her advantages of wealth and social standing. It’s these women to whom Sarah dedicates herself and her education, working after hours at an infirmary in a poor neighborhood. The only thing that keeps her going is her dream of becoming a doctor, serving these people, and having a profession that will let her live in the world instead of as a cloistered wife. And she knows that one mistake, perceived or real, could cost her that dream.

So one night at the infirmary, Sarah turns away a young prostitute, Lucy, who asks for an abortion–which would have been a hanging offense for both parties–only to see the girl’s corpse soon afterward on the dissecting table in anatomy class. Sarah believes Lucy was murdered and sets out to discover who killed her, even as she recognizes that doing so may well drag her down. Not only does her quest bring her to disreputable places, she quickly arouses suspicion from a brilliant but irascible professor who’s quite capable of having her expelled from the university. Is he involved in Lucy’s death? Was he using her? These are deep waters, indeed, and Sarah learns that she’s not as good a swimmer as she thought.

In the process Welsh roils the currents, another pleasure of The Wages of Sin. Sarah should be the least worldly medical student in Edinburgh, but her sufferings and her work at the infirmary have taught her more than the others will ever know. When her female classmates pass out leaflets condemning prostitution and think themselves virtuous, Sarah scoffs in contempt:

They were so innocent. They were so lucky. They hadn’t turned away a frightened, desperate girl. They didn’t have a woman’s death on their conscience, her blood on their hands. They were little girls dressed in their teacher’s clothes, playing with women’s lives as they once played with their dolls, ignorant that all the sermonizing in the world wouldn’t save the soul of someone with a malnourished body.

As Sarah takes larger and larger risks to uncover the truth, the pressures increase from all angles. Her aunt and uncle want her to forget medicine and marry a vacuous, socially inept young man from a good family, and Sarah dares not resist openly. The irascible professor keeps running into her, alone, in places where she shouldn’t be, even chaperoned. Maybe he shouldn’t be there, either, but as a man, he has more moral latitude.

As you might guess, then, “no–and furthermore” lives large in these pages; the narrative consistently thwarts Sarah’s efforts, just when she thinks she might have gotten somewhere. For the first 90 percent of this novel, you couldn’t ask for more riveting storytelling. Throughout, Welsh has made the personal political, asked hard questions about feminism that sound as topical today as they must have seemed radical in 1892, and depicted as vivid, gritty a picture of late Victorian life as you could want.

Unfortunately, the last 10 percent nearly undoes the rest. Having pushed Sarah into a tight corner with hard-edged reality, Welsh builds her resolution on clichés. The killer turns out to have sociopathic tendencies–a cop-out and a tired convention–and is also supremely talkative, for no apparent reason other than the author’s convenience. The final confrontation feels like melodrama, a startling departure from an otherwise bold, original narrative. I think Welsh could have done better–I’m sure of it–and not just because she’s a talented writer.

But read The Wages of Sin, and you be the judge. Despite the flawed ending, I think you’ll be gripped.

Disclaimer: I obtained my reading copy of this book from the public library.