The Warlow Experiment by Alix Nathan

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“A powerful and unsettling novel, both fascinating and infinitely strange.” Andrew Taylor, author of The King’s Evil

As Andrew Taylor notes above, The Warlow Experiment was both fascinating and infinitely strange for sure, but it was still one I could not stop reading! There was just something about it that compelled me to keep turning those pages, had me looking at it longingly and wishing I could get back to it soon. And just as Laird Hunt, author of In the House in the Dark of the Woods said it “gets into your head“. Yes, absolutely! That too!

Alix Nathan based this novel on her finding an advertisement placed in 1797 outlining 50 pounds a year to the man who agrees to live underground for 7 years. She was fascinated by this account and felt it warranted a re-imagining, and The Warlow Experiment is what we have thanks to her fascinating re-imagining.

Herbert Powyss is a wealthy man that is keen to leave his mark on the scientific community and devises this experiment where a man will live underground in his home, but will feature every comfort of home – fine furniture, books, 3 meals a day, all in a luxurious surrounding except that he will have zero contact with the outside world, he will not see the outside world, he will be living underground the entire time. He is also not allowed to cut his hair or his nails for those years. His family will be well taken care of during his time underground. Plus there is that incentive of receiving 50 pounds a year for the rest of his life should he fully complete this experiment.

The only man to apply was John Warlow. Warlow, a barely literate man known to beat his wife and children is eager to leave all behind with the promise of a handsome sum of money each year for the rest of his life.

This really should have been something that I didn’t get on with, and the ratings for this one on Goodreads are quite low, so I went into it with low expectations, despite being so intrigued by its premise. So I didn’t expect how much I really, very much enjoyed this one! Did it come as a surprise that the experiment went to hell and was a complete disaster, almost from the very beginning? I’m not sure, but what had me fixed to the pages was reading how this experiment went on to impact so many more than just Warlow and Powyss. Everyone including the servants, Powyss, Powyss’ friend, the village, and Warlow’s wife Hannah were changed and damaged by this experiment. The consequences of Powyss’ folly were significant.

Once the experiment clearly had broken down it was fascinating to see the descent into madness of everyone involved – it was not just the destruction of one man’s mind – this was an experiment that went so far off the rails and damaged every person within proximity to Powyss and Warlow. And it was also the aftermath that was just as compelling. What happens to Warlow after? Powyss? The others in the house, Warlow’s wife Hannah? Honestly, I felt like I couldn’t tear my eyes away.

The Warlow Experiment also includes the current political and social affairs of the time. News of the revolution happening in France is heavily followed and talked about as well as a sense of empowerment among the servants due to their reading of Thomas Paine’s Rights of Man factors heavily in here. These additional factors impact the experiment as well and the consequences of it affect so many more than just Warlow.

It was a bit of a strange one for sure, but I honestly enjoyed it. Indeed, it is one that gets into your head, as was mentioned above, and it continues to take up space in my head since finishing, I’m still mulling this one over. I’m still thinking about Warlow and Powyss and just how disastrous this was, for so many, and how the consequences of it are ever present and will remain forever.

I originally received this one from Netgalley (and Doubleday), but like I’m generally known to do, I ended up waiting for it to come in paper form from the library so I could read it that way. I recommend if you’re in the mood for something very different!