A review of Gail Bell’s The Poison Principle

Gail Bell takes the facts of this story about her grandfather, handed down through family folklore, hunted down obsessively in testimonials, newspaper clippings, bits of journals, and scattered artefacts, and turns it into a literary examination of the narrative of poisoning; a Barthian thesis on what the nature of poisoning from a mythical, historical, and fictional perspective reveals about humanity.
Reviewed by Magdalena Ball

“Where is the poison principle if it’s not in not in the shape, colour, feel, or smell of a thing?”(46) The main story behind The Poison Principle is a simple one. Two boys die, allegedly poisoned by their father William Macbeth, a carnival healer and showman, who is never charged with his crimes. Gail Bell takes the facts of this story about her grandfather, handed down through family folklore, hunted down obsessively in testimonials, newspaper clippings, bits of journals, and scattered artefacts, and turns it into a literary examination of the narrative of poisoning; a Barthian thesis on what the nature of poisoning from a mythical, historical, and fictional perspective reveals about humanity. Macbeth is a skeleton, his crime hinted at but never brought out of the cupboard; hidden away in the glass bottles with their dangerous residues, buried in the house footings in their wood and brass case. Pharmacist, teacher, journalist, and writer, Bell takes us on an extensive journey through the history of poisoning, using her grandfather’s story as the central pivot to which we keep returning as we move past Cleopatra, Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton, Eva Braun, Socrates, Jason and Medea, Isis and Osiris, Emma Bovary, Van Gogh, and many more famous fictional and historical poisoners and poisonees, along with real criminal cases featuring humans and animals, and a range of poisons like arsenic, opium, strychnine, oleander, Spanish Fly, death by snakebite, by doctored foods, by sedative, an carbon monoxide. The tone of the narrative is blackly humorous, good natured, relaxed, entertaining, but precise in its scholarship, as the reader explores such issues as the femininity of poisoning, of power, of beauty and ugliness, of the tragic and comic nature of poisoning, of the potential of everyone to be a poisoner, but most of all, of the clandestine nature of truth, and the way in which historical monsters, and legends, are created.

Is Macbeth really a criminal? Can we re-write history to fit our own fantasies of how Cleopatra or a circus elephant should have died to allow us an understandable modern mythology? Is it possible to always have a clear answer; to see evil as black and white, thereby extricating ourselves from those whose deeds we fear? Bell points out deftly that humans love mystery, and a “visible clue to so much heartless behaviour” (171). We like our villains and victims to be immaculate, evocative, clearly evil and therefore separate from us, and elaborately composed, in the flashy clothing of Macbeth as he hands over the strychnine, or the arranged and beautiful face of Cleopatra, as she lies more perfect in death than life. As a narrative work, The Poison Principle is hard to characterise. It is clearly entertainment, but also a scholarly work on poisons, with elements of fiction along with biographies, bits of film, and of course the story of William Macbeth. Bell’s writing style is immaculate, her journalist experience shows, as she writes in a manner descriptive and moving without resorting to overt metaphor or heavy symbolism. The prose is clean, and easy to follow, but also meaningful, taking the reader inward into an examination of truth, and meaning: “I needed to listen carefully. Lies carry buried truths. The search had to broaden. I needed to see the face of the poisoner, study the context, listen to the language (mine too), note the auguries, and contrive to see the dark shape in the mixing vat, the poison principle itself.”(27)

There were times when it seemed like the Macbeth story itself was just too thin to carry the weight of the narrative; that the depth of scholarship, and range of additional pieces of historical data so far outweighed this one tale that it threatened to collapse the story, or stray too far from the main thread, however, the quality of the writing, and the deft way in which Bell kept pulling together bits of meaning from the Macbeth poisoning, along with the lovely twist which Bell gives us as we move towards the end, does tie everything together. Overall, this is a very well written and thought provoking book, expanding the boundaries of how we view a narrative; history, the nature of truth, and of course, the meaning of poison – an artful death.

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