Fiction – eBook; Faber and Faber; 293 pages; 2008. Review copy courtesy of digital advertising agency i-level.
Having recently read Druin Burch’s Digging up the Dead, a wonderful biography of the world’s first famous surgeon, Astley Cooper (1768-1841), I was rather looking forward to a fictionalised account of the men from the same era who robbed graves to supply the medical profession with fresh corpses to study.
Billed as an historical thriller, The Resurrectionist, by Australian author James Bradley, was chosen as one of Richard and Judy’s summer reads.
Now this is where I must add a disclaimer: I read this book on a Sony Reader, the first eBook I have ever read, and so for the first 100 or so pages I was still getting to grips with my new gadget and I’m slightly concerned that I may have been distracted and not paid the book the proper attention it deserved. Even so, I struggled to enjoy the storyline, not because it wasn’t well written — the prose style is superb — but because it lacked narrative drive.
I know I have said this many times in the past, but at the risk of repeating myself I truly do believe that the best books are the ones that pose a question in the reader’s mind at the outset, forcing you to read on in order to discover the answer, usually at the end. But in Bradley’s Gothic novel I really had no reason to keep reading because I wasn’t sure what it was I wanted to find out, in other words, no question had been posed at the start unless, of course, I missed it.
As much as the setting is wonderfully evocative and atmospheric (it would be a very poor writer indeed who could not describe London in the early 19th century as such), and the subject matter intriguing (how could the trade in stolen bodies not be?), I failed to identify with the main character, Gabriel Swift.
Mr Swift is a young assistant to Edwin Poll, the greatest of the city’s anatomists, a privileged position that could see him make a name for himself as a surgeon at a later date. Instead, he succumbs to the charms of Poll’s nemesis, the vampire-like Lucan, a resurrectionist who rules the trade in stolen bodies. From there it’s pretty much a downward spiral into crime and opium-addiction.
Later, the book makes an initially unexplained leap to the antipodes where Swift now resides, which made me wonder if I was reading the same book. Indeed, I did momentarily consider the possibility that the eBook file had corrupted without me knowing, because how else could you explain such a change of direction in a narrative?
The Resurrectionist has all the right elements for a good read — fascinating subject, interesting characters, great prose — but it lacks pace and, most importantly of all for a thriller, suspense, and for that reason I can’t give it more than a two-star rating. Others, I am sure, will disagree.