BY SEAN CLARK
Author: James Bradley
2008, Picador Australia
Filed Under: Historical, Literary.
A resurrectionist does not bring the dead to life. There are no literal resurrections in this book (and it’s questionable whether there are any figurative ones). No one cares much for the dead or attempts to restore them. Instead, they pull them from the ground and cut them up in front of an audience.
In 19th century London, anatomists were both doctors and entertainers to the intelligentsia. A gentleman surgeon could build esteem and a reputation, as well as his fortune, through exhibitions of successful autopsies and dissection lectures. But, despite the high mortality rate of the day, human corpses weren’t always easy to come by: laws forbade the dissection of any body not put to death for crime. So doctors turned to resurrectionists, men who would deliver bodies procured by untold means for coin, no questions asked.
Gabriel Swift is a surgeon’s apprentice. An orphan of a soft demeanor, he is also quite prideful. All told, Swift is a nicely fleshed-out protagonist, even if his stubborn naïveté occasionally made me want to reach into the book and slap him. But Bradley’s plot utilizes its characters well, and Swift’s steadfast loyalty wrenches him from the gentlemanly world of a doctor’s apprenticeship (granted, he was on a low rung) to the seedy and disreputable depths of London’s criminal underworld.
Soon drunk, addicted to opium, and in love with a whore, Swift falls in with the disgraced Mr. Lukan, who has made his wealth by selling corpses. The Resurrectionist is at times a gritty book; despite Swift’s somewhat soft demeanor, Bradley doesn’t pull any punches when detailing the seedy and underhanded aspects of Georgian London. Lukan starts Swift off easy-bribing a church warden, but soon builds him up to grave-robbing and extortion. Eventually greed and vice drive the resurrectionists to body snatching and murder.
I won’t give away too much of the late-story plot, but eventually Swift sinks about as low as one can go. Then the book makes an abrupt shift in setting. I didn’t much care for the final leg of this story, but Bradley handles it carefully and it does tie his tale together neatly. I’m not much of a plot twist fan, and despite (or perhaps due to) Bradley’s tidy plotting and thematics, The Resurrectionist is a good example why.
Ultimately, Bradley’s by-the-book writing is both the book’s greatest asset and its most noticeable failing. The Resurrectionist follows all the rules and Bradley constantly plays things safe. The setting is well detailed and the scenario unique. The characters are interesting and wonderfully unlikeable, and the book conjures not a small degree of suspense.
The plot hits all its beats too perfectly. This is a good thing for the pacing, but not so much for the predictability that rears its head in the book’s later chapters. It’s all well and good to exploit a character flaw, and Swift’s steady character decline spirals into an enjoyable crescendo. Then comes the ending, and rather than doing something new or dangerous, it does exactly what I thought it would do, and exactly what I wished it hadn’t.
All the same, the book’s ending certainly didn’t turn me off the experience. It is a light and fast read, with a heavy dose of atmosphere. Don’t expect Dickens, but The Resurrectionist is an excellent choice if you are looking for a literary beach or airplane read.
Similar Reads: Perfume: The Story of a Murderer (Suskind), The Chess Machine (Löhr), The Casebook of Victor Frankenstein (Akroyd), Drood (Simmons)