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An isolated incident – ‘The Warlow Experiment’

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We all have times when all we want is to be alone, times when the presence of others is just too much for us to deal with. But even the most misanthropic among us has the occasional desire to see a face, to hear a voice, to interact with another person in some manner. How long could you go without that simple interpersonal contact?

And what would happen to you if you tried to find out?

Alix Nathan’s “The Warlow Experiment” (Doubleday, $26.95) tells the story of one such effort. It’s an evocative and atmospheric work of historical fiction featuring strong Gothic undercurrents and a relentless bleakness; a dark book packed with shadows both literal and figurative. The pull of the narrative is steady and strong, inviting readers into a world that will haunt their imaginations long after the final page is turned.

Inspired by a contextless advertisement from a real-life source, Nathan has imagined a vivid and unsettling place, one where the wealthy can indulge their whims without accountability and the poverty-stricken are willing to sacrifice everything for the perceived comfort money can bring. It is a tale of the power of isolation, the necessity of physical and emotional contact to the well-being of the social animal that is man.

It is the final decade of the 18th century. Herbert Powyss is a wealthy man living on a large estate in the Welsh countryside. His money is from those who came before; his is an inherited lifestyle. He has no wife and no children; aside from a scant handful of servants, he lives alone.

His passion, like many of those in similar situations at that time, is the natural world. Powyss fancies himself a gentleman scientist, with a particular affinity for botany. But aside from a few minor discoveries, he has failed to make much of an impact in the scientific community; his heart’s deepest desire is to conduct an experiment worthy of presentation to the Royal Society of London.

And one day, it comes to him.

Powyss decides to conduct an experiment on a human – specifically, the impact of enforced isolation on a man. And so, he seeks out a volunteer; in exchange for a lifetime salary of 50 pounds per year – life-changing money for that time – the subject will live in utter solitude for seven years. Powyss constructs an exquisite set of apartments deep below his manor house, furnished beautifully and packed with books and musical instruments. Food will be lowered by dumbwaiter three times a day; soiled linens and dirty dishes sent back up. There will be no social contact whatsoever.

Only one man, a semi-literate laborer named John Warlow, takes Powyss up on the offer. He is not to cut his hair or nails and is expected to write his thoughts in a journal each day. One evening in 1793, Warlow is sealed into his new home for the next seven years – he will not emerge until after the turn of the century.

At least, that’s the plan. It isn’t long, however, before the experiment spirals out of control. The dynamics begin to break down almost immediately, while out in the world, the political climate is charged with anger and violence. Powyss also finds his objectivity challenged by the relationships that emerge over the months and years that the experiment continues.

It turns out that being alone, truly alone, is a lot harder than any of them anticipated. And the consequences – for everyone involved – are far greater.

Part of what’s so fascinating about “The Warlow Experiment” is how utterly plausible it feels. That age was rife with self-styled scientists conducting wildly unethical and bizarre experiments on their fellow man; the experiment laid forth here certainly seems to fit in amongst them. And again, the book’s inspiration is drawn from a real ad placed in a real newspaper, asking for a volunteer to undergo just such an experiment. Since there is no record of how or even if the experiment was conducted, Alix Nathan came up with a story of their own.

And it’s an awfully good one, one that straddles a fine line between delicacy and harshness … and Nathan is always spot-on with regards to which side of that line to be on at any given moment. It’s rich and vivid prose to match the strange and surprisingly heartbreaking tale being told.

With a perspective that moves between scientist and subject, Nathan ably captures the repercussions felt on either side of the door. On one side, we watch the self-involved ambition of Powyss dissolve into despair; on the other, Warlow turns steadily inward despite an inner life that is largely nonexistent. Both are ensnared by the machinations that have been set in motion, unable to escape the mad gravity of what’s been done.

There are many different ways to be alone; what this book does so beautifully is juxtapose some of those ways against one another, forcing the reader to deal with some rather unexpected empathetic complexity and more than a few questions that aren’t easily answered.

“The Warlow Experiment” is captivating, capturing the spine and spirit of a particular place and time. It is rife with an aesthetic and attitudinal murkiness that wholly engulfs, pulling us into the deepest parts of the many shadows cast.

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