Ami McKay is certainly going to remember 2011. After all, it was the year this Nova Scotian author became a household name. In February, her first book, The Birth House, was featured on the immensely popular book contest, Canada Reads. McKay had already won some literary acclaim, but the contest meant nationwide exposure and renewed interest in her writing.
In November, when McKay’s name was still fresh in readers’ minds, she released her second novel, The Virgin Cure. McKay is currently on the Globe and Mail’s Canadian bestseller list alongside Michael Ondaatje and Esi Eduygan.
Bestseller lists and sales figures aren’t really needed to sense the buzz surrounding McKay. In the past two weeks alone, three readers of this column suggested I write about The Virgin Cure. While on holiday, I spotted copies of the book on several relatives’ night tables.
Like her first book, The Virgin Cure follows the life of a poor young woman who has a limited future. And as in The Birth House, her latest book is filled with fascinating medical trivia, outdated practices and cures.
The inspiration for The Virgin Cure was a painting hanging above the piano in McKay’s childhood home. The portrait featured her great-grandmother, a doctor, seated with a child. Always intrigued by the story behind the painting, McKay began researching the life of this New York doctor.
As she began to read about the city in 1870, she realized that she had a much larger story to tell. McKay discovered that at the time, more than 30,000 children lived on the streets of New York City. Many more lived in extreme poverty, their families near starving.
The Virgin Cure tells the story of a hardscrabble young girl named Moth. At age 12, Moth’s mother sells her to a cruel aristocrat. Moth makes her escape from the cruel Dickensian lady of the house, only to land in a brothel which specializes in selling virgins. At the time, many believed that having sex with a virgin was a cure for syphilis.
Obviously, it’s a desperate tale. But somehow McKay keeps the story compelling and sprinkled with hope — perhaps more than is warranted — that Moth will have a chance at a better life.
McKay has won many literary awards, but 2011 was the year a great many Canadians learned of her talent. Here’s hoping there are many more like her to be discovered in 2012.
Heather Allen is a writer and reader who lives in Penticton.