At a talk recently, scholar Mary Beard said that wit is always better than anger. For our stories to hold traction; to be read, discussed and enjoyed, they must be powered by our intelligence, not fury. Which is why Kaite Welsh’s debut novel, The Wages of Sin, is such essential reading right now.
The Wages of Sin is the perfect feminist novel. Set in Victorian Edinburgh, it follows heroine Sarah Gilchrist in her plight through medical school. Women have just been admitted to the university, and hardly anyone is happy about it.
It’s Welsh’s writing that makes the book so fantastic. Full of sophistication, it ensures the book is an enjoyable and pacy read. For example, in relation to dissecting bodies, the university ‘preferred its lady students not to dissect their corpses in the presence of the opposite sex, presumably because the known aphrodisiac effects of decomposing would send us all into paroxysms of ecstatic immorality’. Sarah, like us all, is tired of the sexist tirade emerging from all ends of the university – lecturers and fellow students alike – and her narration snarkily points out the stupidity in the regulations. She’s hilarious, and she also has bite. Some bits are eerily Handmaid’s Tale-esque, especially in relation to male characters discussing menstruation and the assumption that it knocks women out every month. Sarah remarks on it being a natural process, which is something men could be reminded of even now.
Welsh also emphasises the way women tear other women apart. While some of the conditions involving women have thankfully been improved since the Victorian epoch, this is something that is ever-relevant today, and there’s a fair bit of slut shaming in Welsh’s lively novel.
Welsh successfully conjures up the atmosphere of Edinburgh. The only struggle I found was, at points, it was difficult to keep track of Sarah’s movements. With Edinburgh’s stacked-up, Google Maps-defeating streets, Sarah’s journeys from the Meadows to Cowgate were sometimes a little befuddling, and would have been aided by a Victorian map.
Beautifully written and wonderfully paced, The Wages of Sin is sassy and captivating, and I can’t wait to see what else happens in this series.
The Wages of Sin was published by Tinder Press on 1st June 2017.