Book Review: Mr. Hammond and the Poetic Apprentice

It’s been a while since I had an ARC (advance reader’s copy) review but I stumbled across this historical fiction novel and was intrigued by the blurb, so here we are!

Synopsis: Summer, 1814. Thomas Hammond is an apothecary surgeon in a village near London whose dreams of a grand medical career were ruined by a shameful secret. He longs to see his apprentice, his son Edward, become a great surgeon. His other apprentice is eighteen-year-old local orphan, John Keats. Thomas sees John as a daydreamer who wastes time reading. John asks Thomas how he copes with his patients’ suffering, but Thomas has no real answer. After all, Georgian medicine is brutal with no anaesthesia, antisepsis or antibiotics. Leeches are used to bleed and medicines can poison rather than cure.

Thomas failed to save John’s mother four years earlier, and when John criticises Thomas’s methods tempers flare on both sides. Despite their differences, Thomas and John begin to develop a grudging respect for each other with Thomas seeing a humanity in the way John relates to patients. Their relationship deepens into one more resembling father and son while Thomas’s true son, Edward, disappoints his father. Thomas realises John is gifted and would make a skilled surgeon, but to help John succeed Thomas must confront his own past mistakes.

On the verge of qualifying as a surgeon, John unexpectedly abandons medicine for poetry. Thomas is devastated and struggles to find meaning in his life and work. As he faces one final challenge, can the master learn some valuable lessons about life from his poetic apprentice before it’s too late?

As a fan of historical fiction, one of my favorite types of these books are ones that shed some light on an unexpected or unknown part of someone’s life, especially someone famous like John Keats. I knew a bit about Keats’s life, his mother’s death from tuberculosis, and his own when he was still a very young man, but I didn’t know anything about this chapter in his brief history. The book is told from the perspective of John’s mentor, Thomas Hammond, who is a local apothecary surgeon. Hammond struggles with reconciling the fact that he wants to save every one of his patients but ultimately knows that many of the treatment options he has to offer them aren’t likely to help. Hammond also carries the weight of a self-imposed burden from a past episode during his training as a surgeon, and one which colors how he thinks about himself and his role as the local doctor.

The book builds the characters of Hammond and Keats very well. I felt like I knew both of these men better by the book’s ending. There are lovely references to life events that Keats experienced which were later revisited in his poems. The author also builds a completely believeable world in which these men operated – an area just outside of London, still focused on agriculture in the early 19th century, but leaning into developments in science (particularly medicine) that would come to fruition as the century moved on. Keats is portrayed as a young man with many talents – he certainly seems like he could have been a good country doctor since his caring and empathy (and sensitive nature) were all things that made his patients trust him – although we ultimately know that he decided to use those talents in a different way.

I did, however, feel like the book was a bit too slowly paced. There were a lot of dialogue scenes between Keats and Hammond that didn’t really move the plot along. I’m not sure if that was a specific artistic decision or if it was because there are few actual facts available about these years of Keats’s life, and it was a way for the author to try to expand on the limited factual information available. A pleasant, easy read which I enjoyed. Recommended for English literature/Keats fans and with some reservations for general historical fiction fans with 3-1/2 stars.

Thank you to NetGalley and Matador publishing for my ARC. All opinions are my own. (Publication date April 28, 2023.)

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