Gin, Turpentine, Pennyroyal, Rue by Christine Higdon

Things that are messy: families. Also love. And we’ve got that in abundance in Christine Higdon’s 1920s family drama, Gin, Turpentine, Pennyroyal, Rue. The McKenzie sisters had a rough go of it during the war when their brother Roddy enlisted, and an even worse go of it after he died from the Spanish flu. But they’re doing their best, and still managing to have fun. Oldest sister Georgina is unhappy in her marriage to social striver Victor, while second sister Morag is happily in love with her police detective husband Llewellyn. Isla and Harriet-Jean, both living at home, take care of their mother Ahmie, who has been in a cloud since Roddy died. The close-knit family is constantly in and out of each other’s flats, spending their evenings together at the speakeasy, and they’ve got a rhythm – until Isla disrupts it, landing in the hospital after an abortion goes septic. What does it mean that none of them knew Isla even had a lover? And for Isla, how can she ever explain what happened? To be clear, the family is more worried about Isla’s well-being than her morality, which is pleasant for a period novel. The book is nuanced and progressive in how it handles this central plot point.

In the midst of this tragedy, a friendly dog named Rue finds the family and decides to stay with them. Georgina’s trying to figure out what she’s going to do, Morag is pregnant, and Harriet’s falling in love – with Isla’s friend Flore.

“It’s a turbulent family saga, but it’s also set during a turbulent era.”

There’s a lot happening in Gin, Turpentine, Pennyroyal, Rue. The messy threads of the story weave in and out of one another, switching perspectives from Isla, Georgina, Harriet, Llewellyn, and even Rue telling pieces of this story. It’s a turbulent family saga, but it’s also set during a turbulent era: post-World War I, post-Spanish influenza, end of Prohibition, women’s suffrage getting off the ground – all of these play parts in the McKenzie sisters’ stories. Higdon creates a fully fleshed-out world here. Even though different threads get shuffled to the back throughout, or left with inconclusive endings, this novel really does have the feeling of being a slice of life. We are invited into their lives for several months, and that doesn’t leave us with a neat, tidy story.

Gin, Turpentine, Pennyroyal, Rue is a hopeful book but not a happy one. Higdon has written clearly defined characters, with stories bigger than the pages she gives us. I enjoyed her pacing and focus on the day-to-day of the family, against the backdrop of the social changes of the 1920s. Important for context and they do drive the plot, but they never overshadow the core of familial relationships. Higdon has done a wonderful job pulling a complex story together without it feeling too stuffed, and the writing is playful yet carefully considered. For a historical fiction work which feels both fresh and timeless, you don’t have to look any further.

Christine Higdon is the author of the award-winning novel The Very Marrow of Our Bones. She has won a National Magazine Award, been published in numerous journals, and nominated for CBC literary prizes. She lives part-time in Nova Scotia but mostly in Mimico, Ontario.

  • Publisher ‏ : ‎ a misFit book (Sept. 12 2023)
  • Language ‏ : ‎ English
  • Paperback ‏ : ‎ 392 pages
  • ISBN-10 ‏ : ‎ 1770417060
  • ISBN-13 ‏ : ‎ 978-1770417069