This book is a meticulously researched and historically immersive novel. It follows Dilys an (initially) loyal member of a cult, led by the fanatical Octavia, self proclaimed Daughter of God. Their beliefs follow a century old legend that a prophet, Joanna Southcott sealed instructions in a wooden box to be opened when end times were upon us. The box could only be opened by 12 bishops Octavia’s cult of ladies believed it had to be opened by the bishops in the site of the Garden of Eden. (In Bedford, duh). The Panacea Society believed themselves to be guardians of the box and gatekeepers of the new Eden. Octavia’s increasingly eccentric habits, rules, and rituals lead to tension and excitements…..
The Panacea Society were already fascinating, with what some would consider to be nonsensical far-fetched beliefs, but this novel succeeds in weaving them into a narrative that not only makes sense but has a clear journey and end point. It also has bigger things to say about the interwar period. As a local to Bedford it really helps to be able to visualise the inside of the society, which perhaps led to me losing some focus in certain expositionary parts of the book.
The surprise for me, was the in depth exploration of mental health and sexuality through the main character. Dilys is real, compelling and easy to root for, and the sense of tension when she tries to assert a level of independence against authority is palpable. Your breath catches as she hides in an attic room or steals a moment with her lover in a sacred ceremonial space.
The tension builds throughout until a cult enforced trial provides a thrilling event to frame the final descent into chaos for many of the characters. The ending will stay with you long after finishing too. I defy anyone who doesn’t already know the Panacea not to google the Society or have an urge to come to Bedford after reading it.
With interesting things to say about religion and its effects on people, the books strength is how mesmerising it is to seeing how any humans react to belief and power.
A very assured debut, and we look forward to the next one!