Touching Distance

Rebecca Abrams

25 October 2012
320 pages


‘Atmospheric and fascinating’ - Hilary Mantel

Shortlisted for the McKitterick Prize and winner of the Medical Journalists' - Association Open Book Award

In the winter of 1790, a mysterious and deadly disease strikes the unsuspecting town of Aberdeen. The victims are all women in the prime of life. Determined to save his patients, talented young physician Alec Gordon embarks on an astonishing medical quest. What he discovers will shake the small, close-knit community to the core and change his own life – and that of his wife and young daughter – forever.

Based on the true story of Alexander Gordon, the first person to discover that infectious diseases were transmitted by human contact, Touching Distance is a stunning historical novel set in Scotland and the West Indies in the Age of Enlightenment. It centres on a deadly epidemic without a cure, history’s very first ‘track and trace’, and Gordon’s desperate attempts to make people understand the vital importance of hand-washing and social-distancing, over a century before they were scientifically proven. A vivid portrait of a pivotal moment in world history, it is also a universal tale of intimacy and estrangement, reason and passion, corruption and courage.

The novel’s key themes include medical whistle-blowers, doctors and midwives on the frontline of a deadly disease, the battle between scientific truth and political self-interest, Britain’s deep links with colonialism and slavery, the dangerous intersection of racism and sexism, and the impact of epidemics on women. Touching Distance by Rebecca Abrams is a novel that speaks powerfully to crucial issues we are still grappling with today.

Beautifully worked – a harrowing, atmospheric and fascinating novel, with sound research put to telling use . . . shockingly intimate, but with an epic feel.
‘A mystery story, a love story, a historical drama – I can’t imagine a reader who would not be moved by this book.’ Janice Galloway
‘A subtle and moving portrait of a man battling his own limitations, both in terms of scientific knowledge and personality . . . With pace and drama, Abrams tells a tale which is at once informative and emotionally rewarding.’ Scotsman