Near the end of Christine Higdon’s evocative and provocative novel Gin, Turpentine, Pennyroyal, Rue, Isla McKenzie wonders how different things will be for the next generation, who “could live through the twentieth century, and even into the twenty-first if they’re lucky.” Isla’s musings are prompted by her hard experience of life with her three sisters – Georgina, Morag, and Harriet – in 1920s Vancouver, a place of beautiful beaches and backroom abortions, cool speakeasies and homophobic violence. Like all historical fiction, Higdon’s novel is about the interplay between the time of its writing and the time of its setting; the erosion of reproductive rights in the United States and rising intolerance toward the LGBTQIA2S+ community in places, including Canada, make Isla’s vision of a brighter future seem both ironic and urgent.
Isla has barely survived her choice to end an unwanted pregnancy, the result of a secret affair with Morag’s husband Llewellyn. “What were you thinking?” demands Georgina, herself carrying the emotional pain of multiple miscarriages. “That I would lose everything. … It was worth the risk,” Isla replies. “A child out of wedlock is a prison sentence for a woman,” her friend Flore says to an initially judgmental Harriet; to Llewellyn, obsessed with finding and punishing the abortionist, Flore exclaims, “then do something so that we do not have to resort to butchers like him in hotel rooms or back alley kitchens.” When Llewellyn recites the names of women who, unlike Isla, did not survive the brutal procedure, Flore retorts, “How about these names: Gin. Turpentine. Pennyroyal. Rue. … Hat pin. Crochet hook. Knitting needle. Bicycle spoke.”
Higdon sets the immediate crisis of Isla’s abortion in the wider context of the McKenzie sisters’ lives, which have included other devastating losses – their father, killed years ago in a logging accident, and their brother Roddy, who survived the First World War only to die at home of influenza. Grief has broken their mother Ahmie, who finds “doctor-prescribed oblivion” in regular doses of laudanum. Georgina, as the oldest, now carries the burden of being “the organizer, the decision-maker, the fixer,” looking out for everyone else even as she chafes at her own safe but unfulfilling marriage. Morag, happily oblivious to Llewellyn’s infidelity, is newly and joyfully pregnant; Harriet is learning to accept her queer identity through her growing feelings for Flore, who, Georgina tells her, is “not only a Bolshevik,” but, “even worse, a Sapphist.”
“Find the place where you belong,” counsels Harriet’s friend Padraig, himself viciously beaten for winking at the wrong man, “then you can stop pretending.” On meeting Padraig, Ahmie says, “He’s a man like your uncle Hugh,” ensuring that both her daughters and Higdon’s readers recognize sexual diversity as a historical reality, not an ideological imposition.
The novel’s messages about choice and inclusion are clear, but it succeeds at being dramatic, not didactic, as the McKenzie sisters struggle to find justice, autonomy, safety, and love in the often hostile world Higdon brings vividly to life. If their problems remain sadly familiar, the novel’s notes of hope and beauty, and the delicate optimism of its conclusion, are all the more welcome.