I’m not sure what I was expecting from Viper Wine. It’s elegant and lyrical, erudite and sumptuous, and at times curiously surreal and ludicrous. I mean, I really loved it, I’m just not sure I understood all of it.
Hermione Eyre’s debut is very smart and feels thoroughly, densely researched. It is a fictionalised account of the final year of 17th Century socialite Venetia Stanley’s life alongside her husband Sir Kenelm Digby. However, this tale can’t be characterised as occupying a particular time period. It leaps across the breadth of history through the narrative of Sir Kenelm, who manages to experience slices of the future as well as the past, humming David Bowie and Lou Reed lyrics to his son, and seeing flashes of information about stem cell research and space exploration amid his own studies.
The sense of time in Viper Wine is one of the most fascinating parts of it. We are handed the abstract concept that Kenelm occupies/is aware of a universal time – for him the past, present and future coexist, and it is possible for him to tune in and out of future events at will. The author’s frequent references to our present, Kenelm’s future, pull us out of the historical framework and make us rethink the context of the book, and she is never afraid to pull the rug from under us by totally shattering the fourth wall and directly referencing herself and the reader.
The novel (as well as the characters) is rarely restricted by linear time, and in many ways Venetia is just like any 21st Century woman in her thirties, plagued by misogynistic dogma delivered in the gossip of her peers and the expectations of the men who once loved her. She was once a famed beauty and as her youth departs her she is fearful not only of the rejection of her circle of friends at court but of her loving husband, despite his determined protestations. The roots of her power lie in her remarkable face – a fate that befalls many women in the public eye – a power source that unfairly, inevitably, withers with age.
Eyre draws many important and thought provoking parallels between the 17th Century concept of beauty and the 21st Century, frequently drawing our attention to cosmetic potions (of then and now) and ‘operations’, which become more and more farcical and grotesque as we move through the story. The most prominent potion is the eponymous ‘viper wine’, containing the blood of a viper, the urine of a pregnant mare and opium, making it addictive as well as vile. The theme of addiction is also handled well by the author, given all of the deftness and sympathy due, while never diverting the reader’s attention away from it’s grim realities.
This novel is smart and exciting, and demands attention. Hermione Eyre boldly ignores convention to show the reader something new, to illuminate our own weaknesses as well as those of her protagonists, and I can’t wait to see what she does next.
Viper Wine is available in hardback in any bookshop worth its salt, at £14.99.