This is Canadian author Ami Mckay’s second novel and she has chosen nineteenth century New York as her setting. The title refers to the misguided belief that syphilis could be cured by having sex with a virgin. Main character is twelve year old Moth who is sold by her mother to the abusive and cruel Mrs Wentworth. Moth escapes but life on the streets is impossible in the New York of 1871 and she thinks herself lucky to be taken in by Miss Everett, a madam who sells the virginity of the girls she looks after to the highest bidder, then keeps just a select few on her books until the girls find a better offer, or, more frequently, get put out of the house.
There are obvious parallels to Michel Faber’s masterpiece “The Crimson Petal And The White” and this is a suggestion at the back of the book for further reading. This isn’t as good and, despite the gruesome description of the plot in my first paragraph the main reason is that if feels overly glossy, particularly compared with Faber’s evocation of London of much the same period. McKay in this novel does not demonstrate the flair for language that makes Faber’s book such a joy. It is a lighter read than “Crimson Petal”. However, I am comparing this with what I consider to be one of the greatest books of the 21st Century, so perhaps I am being unfair. The main strength of this book is characterisation. The reader really cares what will happen, particularly to Moth, to Alice (a fellow virgin hoping for true love), to Cadet (the boy employed to keep an eye on the girls) and Dr Sadie (the female doctor who provided the inspiration for the novel). This character was a real-life ancestor of the author. She worked tirelessly to improve the health of New York prostitutes and sought to try and find a way out for the girls. Side notes, news reports, nineteenth century adverts, fonts and poster are used well to create a sense of authenticity. Mckay’s portrayal of New York is convincing and perhaps it is unfortunate that I read this with a recent re-read of Faber’s classic in my mind. I did, however, still enjoy this very much.
“The Virgin Cure” was published in the UK in 2012 by Orion