There’s something quite sinister about our contemporary pursuit of wellness. It’s the delusional flight from the horror of physical embodiment, as we chug our potions and microdose on toxins and slather our faces in expensive serums in the hopes of delaying the decay that is already alive and blooming within us. This makes the role of the healer a slightly menacing one. We can easily fall under the sway of someone who promises us a miracle cure, who swears to us that, with enough hope, or money, or devotion, we will find ourselves circumnavigating death and be well again.

Lucie Elven’s debut novel is set in a pharmacy, in the kind of small European town in which one would imagine a 19th-century poet convalescing from tuberculosis. A young woman has arrived to serve as an apprentice pharmacist, but she finds the village itself to be in waning health. It’s set in an unspecified year, although there is internet and the remote village – accessible only by funicular – is battling the typical modern-day troubles of small-town life in an urbanised world. The young people are leaving for the cities and they are changing, the head pharmacist August Malone tells our unnamed protagonist. "When they visited their family they had new sing-song voices, as though they were on the radio."

Lucie Elven’s debut novel is set in a pharmacy, in the kind of small European town in which one would imagine a 19th-century poet convalescing from tuberculosis

And then there are the stories about the place, and the mountains and the forest that surround them. Our narrator remembers coming here as a child, and her uncle telling her stories about a monster stalking the region. It is some sort of unknown beast. Hidden creatures, a town seemingly cut off from the larger world, a girl with no name and a man with healing abilities – it’s all very fairy-tale, apt for the setting and reinforced by a prose style that is frail and brittle, which I mean as a compliment. The sentences pass like twigs, or is it the bones of small animals, snapping under your feet as you follow Elven through the landscape.

Our protagonist also wants to be a healer. She learns from the master, but first she must realise that the ailments of the people around her are as much emotional and social as they are physical. Their symptoms remind them of a family squabble or a memory from childhood, and the role of the pharmacist is as much to receive these stories as it is to dispense any remedy. The mysterious Malone has 
a kind of magical ability to manipulate the people coming to him for help, partly because he can make them feel better, 
but also because he has listened to all of their secrets.

The Weak Spot disappoints only in the way it too neatly becomes a fable about falling under the sway of authoritarianism. Once the pharmacist decides to run for mayor, it’s easy to guess how the rest of the story will go. And not in a satisfying allegorical way, more in an I-have-found-the-angle-for-my-think-piece way. The waning state of the town and the tales of its past glories permeate like much nativist political rhetoric.

It’s better, then, as it builds, before everything dark and lurking in the woods erupts in the town square. Elven’s ability to make characters distinct and memorable with only a few lines of dialogue and a brief summing up really is delightful. One Helen Stole, a teacher, is precisely brought to mind with a quick line: "A pleasant terror radiated around her." Even when characters and clients walk in and out without reappearance, 
they seem to linger. One expects them, maybe they are just around the corner. Like her protagonist, Elven perhaps 
lacks a little confidence, but will soon learn, I’m sure, how to hold us under her sway.

The Daily Telegraph

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