The Poison Keeper by Deborah Swift

Genre: Historical fiction

Published: 2021

No. of Pages: 410

Throughout history, many lives have been taken by the invisible hands of lethal poison. While many may think poisonous administration was performed at random, Deborah Swift exhibits that it was indeed a career – a clandestine and dangerous one too.

In her latest novel The Poison Keeper, Swift brings to life another period of history. Set in Renaissance Italy 1633, the novel is based on the true story of the legendary Giuila Tofana who was notorious for concocting and providing women with deadly poisons to use on their abusive husbands.

Swift first introduces the reader to Giuila ­­­­­– a young, naïve girl, desperate for a sense of responsibility in her mother’s apothecary business in the lively streets of Palermo. Despite her incessant pestering, Giuila’s mother continues to keep dark secrets hidden from her daughter and the truth about her business. It is only when Giuila’s mother is suddenly arrested for the attempted murder of the powerful Duke de Verdi, and cruelly executed, that Giuila’s world is changed and the dark comes to light.

Giuila is sent to stay with her aunt Isabetta, a famous courtesan, and is forced to quickly grow up and navigate a new world and way of existence in Naples. As the pain of her mother’s death continues to remain piercing in her heart, it is not long till Giuila vows for revenge against the Duke. Following her mother’s footsteps, she sets out to perfect the art of apothecary and to create the ultimate poison – Aqua Tofana.

Alongside Giuila’s story sits the tumultuous political backdrop of Naples. With the Duke’s corrupt brother in charge, Domenico de Verdi, the citizens are subjected to fear by the Camorra (the mafia) through extortion. Swift successfully captures this fear in the ever-present threat of war and the sense of community mustered amongst the working citizens.

Swift interweaves multiple lively characters accompanied by well-crafted settings including the warm familiarity of an apothecary shop, the allure of a courtesan’s house, the quiet refuge of the Church and the private bedchambers of the Duke. The reader is wholly immersed into these vibrant places, thus the story is never short of excitement. 

While The Poison Keeper empowers those women who were subjected to a subservient status to their husbands and treated with little to no respect, it also emphasises the dangerous nature of suppling such poisonous substances. Due to this, as the reader roots for Giuila’s plan yet remains aware of the high risks, the novel oozes tension at the perfect moments and remains unpredictable.

Swift has not only written an enthralling piece of fiction, but has also uncovered a lesser-known historical figure whose notoriety will continue to shock and intrigue. I am certainly excited to see what, and who, Swift writes about next.

Purchase here on Amazon:

My book review also features in Aspects of History magazine (Issue 5) – a magazine dedicated to history and historical fiction.

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