Viewed through modern eyes and over a distance of a century, the struggle of the Women's Social and Political Union, the suffragettes, for votes for women can seem a remote, almost quaint, affair. This was a struggle that achieved its aims, though not fully until 1928, and it's now almost impossible to believe that a civilised society could ever have seriously resisted the idea of votes for all. "A Petrol Scented Spring" by Ajay Close is a novel that takes as its background the treatment of suffragettes in Scotland in the years immediately before World War One. No-one who reads it will ever again consider the struggle for votes for women as being even remotely quaint.
Told from a variety of viewpoints, the central character of the book is Donella, who finds herself trapped in an unconsummated marriage with Hugh Ferguson Watson. He serves as a prison doctor and, two years previously, had been responsible for force-feeding women prisoners in Perth Prison. Much of the book is given over to the ferocious struggle of wills between Ferguson Watson and one of the prisoners, Arabella Scott, and the graphic depiction of her treatment as she is held in solitary confinement and force-fed is a harrowing one. As Donella tries to understand why her marriage has failed before it has even begun, the question of the adversarial relationship that formed between Arabella Scott and Ferguson Watson is one that comes to the fore time and again. Or is there another reason for Ferguson Watson's inability to come to terms with his duties as a husband? Donella goes on to carve her own path in the world and... well, perhaps you ought to find out for yourself how the strands of this story are brought together.
"A Petrol Scented Spring" is not a joyous book, but it is an accomplished and a compelling one. The characters are beautifully and sympathetically written. Ajay Close's ability to take the reader into the minds of those living in a world that feels in many ways utterly alien, despite being only a few generations removed from today, is remarkable, and you emerge with a much clearer understanding of a society that could justify to itself such extreme measures in defence of the status quo.