Poi­son and its com­pan­ions

He­len Gar­ner cel­e­brates an au­thor who com­bines lethal clin­i­cal sci­ence with po­etic hu­man sto­ry­telling

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - He­len Gar­ner

Gail Bell is that rare and valu­able thing, a sci­en­tist with a lit­er­ary soul. She is a chemist by pro­fes­sion but a writer to the core. Thus she is well placed to ex­ca­vate the dread­ful sus­pi­cion that her fam­ily hid for decades, even from it­self: that in 1927 her grand­fa­ther poi­soned his two lit­tle sons with strych­nine, and got away with it.

‘‘By in­cli­na­tion and train­ing,’’ writes Bell, ‘‘I’ve spent many years think­ing about the bad stuff, poi­son and its com­pan­ions: se­crecy, death and sto­ry­telling.’’

It seems, then, that her whole work­ing and read­ing life has been a prepa­ra­tion for her telling of this story. But The Poi­son Prin­ci­ple is much, much more than an in­ves­ti­ga­tion of a crime. It does not lend it­self to a neat sum­min­gup, and a sin­gle read­ing will not ex­haust what it has to of­fer.

The book is a cor­nu­copia, a teem­ing world that one can fruit­fully get lost in. It re­wards a dou­ble ap­proach — a dreamy fol­low­ing of the wan­der­ing nar­ra­tive thread, and a close con­cen­tra­tion on each packed yet re­laxed sen­tence.

Bell folds her fam­ily’s mys­tery into a so­phis­ti­cated fab­ric of sto­ries gath­ered from a broad field of read­ing and think­ing. She is as much at ease in high lit­er­a­ture, psy­chol­ogy, alchemy and myth as in the cool-headed lan­guage of mod­ern sci­ence. She has a sci­en­tist’s abil­ity to ar­tic­u­late grue­some pro­cesses with a de­tach­ment that makes them fas­ci­nat­ing rather than re­pel­lent.

Here, I think, lies the strange beauty of the book: the com­bi­na­tion of that icy clin­i­cal eye with a po­etic in­stinct for soul, a ten­der cu­rios­ity about hu­man mat­ters that rea­son alone can­not ac­count for.

And what an en­gag­ing, witty, au­thor­i­ta­tive voice she has — what a light touch. She strides across the his­tory of poi­sons, their uses and mean­ings. She is al­ways el­e­gant, glid­ing and bound­ing and land­ing in as­ton­ish­ing places. In the Bri­tish Med­i­cal Jour­nal of 1862, for ex­am­ple, she finds the tale of a crino­line made of a cloth whose green dye, a paste in­clud­ing a form of ar­senic, makes it ‘‘daz­zle like an emer­ald. Fully rigged for danc­ing in match­ing gown, head­dress, fan and shoes, the young lady is car­ry­ing enough ar­senic on board to kill ev­ery­one in the room.”

She tosses off a ca­sual aside — ‘‘the Amer­i­can am­bas­sador to Rome who slept un­der a ceil­ing of peel­ing ar­senic roses’’ — or lays down a riff on cyanide and its ‘‘speed and sur­prise’’, qual­i­ties at­trac­tive to ‘‘the sui­cide who doesn’t care a fig what the body looks like af­ter death’’ — for cyanide has a ‘‘ten­dency to turn the mouth, and some­times the whole face, bright blue’’.

In­deed, the colours of all the poi­sons en­chant her: ‘‘ruby red crys­tals ... brick-red … bril­liant yel­low pow­der … a crys­talline white cake’’. She res­cues from obliv­ion a cer­tain doc­tor who ‘‘per­son­ally ap­plied dabs of poi­son to blowflies’’. But her tone mod­u­lates into rev­er­ence when she speaks of an­ti­dotes that ‘‘come out of the shad­ows, like kind spir­its hold­ing lamps’’.

Through the rich tex­ture of these ru­mi­na­tions she threads her per­sis­tent, un­hur­ried search for the truth about the two lit­tle boys who died at Ka­toomba in 1927. They per­ished, ac­cord­ing to an aunt whose re­luc­tantly whis­pered ver­sion is the only one avail­able, at the hands of their fa­ther.

Tire­lessly and sub­tly Bell works at de­con­struct­ing this story. Her grand­fa­ther, she learns, was ‘‘a chemist who posed as a doc­tor in coun­try towns’’, ‘‘a dab­bler’’ in poi­sons who worked at ‘‘the rat­bag end of med­i­cal prac­tice’’, a self­in­vent­ing char­la­tan whose pa­tients trusted him be­cause he ‘‘had warm hands’’. But ev­ery trail leads into fur­ther si­lence and dark­ness.

At last she is obliged to ac­cept that the truth about her lit­tle un­cles’ deaths will al­ways elude her. But like many an ex­hausted re­searcher who can’t quite put the story down and walk away, she takes a last look at one of the doc­u­ments, and the cru­cial fact leaps to her eye. The story swings around like a boat on a change of cur­rent. Her dis­cov­ery has the power to de­mol­ish her fam­ily’s myth of it­self.

When she tri­umphantly lays the fruits of her re­search be­fore her fa­ther, he is not, she writes, ‘‘as ea­ger to ac­cept my gift as I was to give it’’. Some facts are ‘‘too po­tent on their own, too stark’’. Hum­bled by his quiet re­sis­tance, by his un­spo­ken need to go on be­liev­ing the ver­sion that pro­tects him from what he could not bear, she learns again the re­spect that is owed to the un­know­able, to the pri­vate ways in which wounded peo­ple teach them­selves to go on.

is a writer. This is her in­tro­duc­tion to a new edi­tion of Gail Bell’s The Poi­son Prin­ci­ple, pub­lished by Xoum ($24.99).

Gail Bell at home in 2002

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