Book Review: The Madman’s Daughter, by Megan Shepherd

I’m a little bit in love with this fresh take on The Island of Doctor Moreau from Megan Shepherd, in which the story is fleshed out and explored in entirely new and delicious ways, while retaining the deep sense of creepiness and horror of the original. The Madman’s Daughter integrates a new character and a new perspective: the story is told from the point of view of Dr. Moreau’s daughter, Juliet, who goes on a wild adventure in search of her father in an era when women were severely restricted, and finds some things she wasn’t expecting.

Believing her father dead since his exile from London after a scandal involving vivisection, Juliet thinks she’s an orphan after her mother’s death, struggling to support herself with work as a cleaning lady and living in a boarding house. Her fall from high society after her father’s death has left her a changed and desperate 17-year-old as she understands first-hand that the world can be brutally unfair and it doesn’t provide opportunities for people like her. When she stumbles across some medical students performing an experiment on a rabbit and finds papers she suspects proves her father is alive, she discovers that his assistant is in the city picking up supplies.

She insists on accompanying him back to the remote island where Dr. Moreau works, despite his warnings that she may not like what she finds there, and along the way, they pick up a castaway who identifies himself as Edward Prince. Juliet’s caught in a love triangle (of course) between the two men as she struggles to understand what is going on at the island, and why. They’re surrounded by curious people who seem like half-creatures, spouting strange doctrine and serving Doctor Moreau on a locked compound that supposedly keeps them safe from a mysterious monster that stalks the jungle.

As a net of terrifying circumstances tightens around her, Juliet starts to realise she may have gotten more than she bargained for with her hunt for her father, who’s still involved in the same horrific experiments he was in London, with far more troubling and awful results. None of the people around her are who she thinks they are, and it’s impossible for her to tell who she should be turning to for help, and how she’s going to escape from the circumstances she’s trapped herself in.

There are a lot of things about The Madman’s Daughter that intrigue me, and a lot of them are a bit spoilery, so be warned. One of them is a resolution of the love triangle, which happens in a way that is very much not what you would expect. Love triangles frustrate me, and I’m accustomed at this point to authors trying to balance tangles between characters in a way that will eventually push one character toward another and pull reader sympathies with that pairing. Or one person will be conveniently killed off/revealed as a bad guy.

Which, initially, is what seems to happen here with the revelation of Edward as a monster. This is the point where I sighed and said ‘oh, really now?’ And thus, I was pleasantly and immensely surprised by the end of the book, where Moreau’s assistant chooses to remain behind on the wreckage of the island community to look after the Doctor’s creations in the firm belief that he’s as responsible for them as the Doctor was. (As indeed he is, since he helped create them.)

There’s a moment there where it looks like Juliet gets to have her cake and eat it too: her love triangle is resolved, she gets to flee the island with her childhood crush, everyone will live happily ever after, hooray, and then she realises with a sinking heart that he’s not hopping into the boat with her, and this is a journey she’ll make on her own. And I like that resolution, a lot (though I’m aware that this is a first in a series so that may change). I like that Juliet ends this book basically right where she started: with nothing, and no one in the world, and in danger. I like that the love triangle doesn’t neatly tie itself up in a bow, because it radically shifts the book from the usual narrative in stories like these.

Shepherd also plays with language in intriguing ways and creates an evocative vision not just of the jungle around the island, but of the tense circumstances inside the compound and the ways in which Juliet struggles to navigate the world around her. With shifting sands everywhere she looks, Juliet needs to learn quickly that nothing, and no one, is trustworthy, and Shepherd accomplishes this in part with descriptive language and scene-setting, showing us rather than explicitly telling us. There are plenty of clues in this book in addition to the vivid and sometimes gory scenes that leave you shuddering, but you do have to read between the lines to find them.

I do, of course, frown at the characterisation of the Doctor as a ‘madman’ even though I know the title is a play on the ‘mad scientist’ trope, which has problems of its own. It always disturbs me to see abhorrent behaviour characterised as the result of madness, for mental illness doesn’t make people engage in vivisection and other awful crimes. To blame these things on mental illness rather than individual character traits and structural issues (like the devaluation of animals and the once widely-held belief that animals didn’t feel pain) is to endanger mentally ill people by making it seem like we’re all dangerous and all capable of things like that, that such things are in our nature—and that no ‘sane’ person can commit crimes like these.

Given the source material and what she’s working with, Shepherd was rather backed into a corner here, and I believe that in the text itself, she tried to do a good job of showing how the Doctor started out as a perfectly ordinary man who eventually became consumed with ideas of power, control, and playing God. As he loses control of his creations, so too does he start to lose control of his capacity to deal with the world, but is that the result of ‘madness,’ or of a sense of failure in a world he once totally dominated? In a way, the Doctor’s decline becomes a commentary on masculinity, power, and control, rather than a flip attribution to mental illness.