The Warlow Experiment

It is the premise of the book that made me pick it up. The curiosity in me made me want to know what would have happened in such a situation where one volunteers to live alone for seven years.

It is January 1793, England. There is an advertisement placed in the papers. The advert says:

A reward of £50 a year for life is offered to any man who will undertake to live for 7 years underground without seeing a human face: to let his toe and fingernails grow during the whole of his confinement, together with his beard. Commodious apartmenets are provide with cold bath, chamber organ, as many books as the occupier shall desire. Provisions with be served from Mr. Powysws’s table. Every convenience desired will be provided.

This is an actual advert that was placed in the papers. The writer of the book Alix Nathan has created a fictional narrative around this advert and has come up with a genuinely creepy and disturbing story in The Warlow Experiment.

Mr. Herbert Powyss is a scientist who wants to make a name for himself by conducting such an experiment to see the effects of a prolonged solitude on a man for seven years. In comes a poor man, John Warlow, who has a wife and six children to support. He needs the money (I can’t imagine what £50 would have sounded like to someone in the 1700s.

Warlow signs up for the experiment, and is given assurance by Powyss that his wife and children will be looked after during the next seven years. Warlow is sent to the basement to his lodgings. Food is sent down to him via the dumbwaiter, along with the books he wants to read. Warlow also writes in his diary to record his thought process. He seems to settle in easy in the initial days. However, as the days and years pass, Warlow starts going a little crazy. His writing skills also deteriorate and his words become ineligible.

But soon, he starts longing for some human interaction. Unexpectedly, Powyss, the scientist, starts interacting with his subject’s wife, which is when things start going horribly wrong.

The French Revolution is also happening at the same time. The servants in the house are riled up by the thought of overthrowing their master. They begin to see the Warlow Experiment as an example of an upper class man taking advantage of a lower class man.

The consequences of such an experiment by a selfish and self-entitled man on a poor, hapless man, prove to be disastrous for everyone by the end of it all.

The book is creepy and sinister, and as we progress further, it was only hard to imagine the living conditions of Warlow. I started feeling disgust just to think about how filthy his living conditions would have been: poor toilet facilities, frequency of taking baths lessens, and allowing creepy crawlies all over him. There were moments when I felt the book was lagging (could have been shorter by 30-40 pages) but somehow the writer managed to keep my interest. I really wanted to how the experiment ended so that kept me going.

The highlight for me in the book was to experience the experiment from Warlow’s point of view. The slow descent into madness, the frustration, the solitude– it all gets to him. Made me wonder what I would have done had I been in his shoes.

The Warlow Experiment is a work of fiction but it’s based on real people, so just to know that such an experiment existed amps up the horror of it all.

Rating: 3 out of 5.

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