The Resurrectionist by James Bradley (2006) 335 p.
I was led on to James Bradley after reading his review of John Wyndham’s posthumously-released novel Plan For Chaos in The Australian a few years ago, and found that he has a thoughtful and interesting blog, City of Tongues, and a Twitter account well worth following. He’s renowned as Australia’s leading literary critic, but is also the author of three novels, and after reading his critical work for the past three years I thought it was worth reading one of them. So there you go, authors – all that tweeting and blogging and doing extra writing for newspaper literary supplements really does pay off. (Figuratively, anyway. I bought this copy from a second-hand bookstore.)
Set in the dark and dreary Dickensian London of the early 19th century, the novel follows Gabriel Swift as he is apprenticed to Mr Poll, an anatomist in the fledgling science of the human body. Mr Poll appears largely driven by the pursuit of knowledge itself, though most of his students are surgeons or doctors in training, with plenty of practical applications for their studies. The constant procurement and dissection of corpses is somewhat uncomfortable, but it’s part of becoming a doctor, no different from medical studies in modern universities, and it’s all done legally – except when it isn’t. The novel really begins to unfold as Gabriel falls afoul of the politics between Mr Poll, some of his apprentices and his former rivals, and finds himself caught up in the murky world of corpse procurement. Up in the lecture theatre, the science of the human body is a world of gentlemen; down at street level, it’s run by grubby thugs and criminals. (There were at least two scenes I feared were about to verge into necrophilia). The story is clearly at least partly inspired by Burke and Hare, though that’s a piece of history I wasn’t overly familiar with, so it didn’t impact much upon my reading of the book. (Come to think of it, it was Bradley who dismissed Jamrach’s Menagerie as being less of a novel for being based on true events, which I didn’t agree with at all. But anyway.)
The Resurrectionist is, above all, a deeply atmospheric novel. Bradley is an author who deals greatly in his narrator’s thoughts and feelings and internal conflict, with much of his interaction with other characters playing out in summary rather than scene. While I sometimes had trouble following the precise thread of the narrative, and the motivations of various characters, I very much enjoyed the bleak, foggy, dark London nights that the story unfolds in. (Actually, it strongly reminded me of the film The Piano.) There’s a surprising shift in tone and scene in the final quarter of the novel, but one which I thought was quite appropriate and worked very well.
Bradley’s writing style – at least in this novel – was a little too heavy for my tastes. At least half the text is devoted to what’s going on inside Gabriel’s head at any given time; it’s a novel built on introspection and philosophising. This may be how Bradley typically writes his fiction, or it may have been an attempt to capture a 19th century style. In any case, despite my own preferences, The Ressurectionist is an objectively solid novel, and I’ll read some of Bradley’s others before delivering the backhanded compliment that I enjoy his work as a critic more than his work as an author.