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The Resurrectionist by James Bradley
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The Resurrectionist (2006)

by James Bradley

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An interesting and fairly dark story. Gabriel Swift's life starts out badly and, despite some lucky breaks, mostly, it gets worse. Not quite a 'page turner' but I enjoyed the story and its telling. ( )
  thejohnsmith | Jul 22, 2015 |
I very rarely give up on reading a book, but I was so bored, unengaged and uncaring about the characters and the plot in this book that I gave up on page 225. Now I love a Gothic novel, but this was just list of autopsies, dis-interments, death, sometimes murder, broken up every so often with the odd slice of the London underworld, which does not a Gothic novel make. ( )
  riverwillow | May 5, 2014 |
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. ( )
1 vote edgeworth | Sep 29, 2013 |
Gabriel Swift is a student of anatomy in London during the 1820s, dependent on the goodwill of his guardian. He is a likeable character at first, appearing considerate and kind, yet with an unfortunate tendency to submit to other men’s stronger wills. By accident he becomes complicit in the shady dealings of the body snatchers who supply the anatomists with a ready stream of corpses on which they can practise their craft. Through a series of events Gabriel sinks deeper and deeper into the dark London underworld, gradually abandoning his humanity in favour of easy money.

There is no denying that James Bradley paints a very dark picture of London towards the end of the Georgian era, and very atmospheric it is too. His prose often is a joy to read, and with his protagonist Gabriel Swift he has given the reader someone who is very eloquent and examines his feelings frequently, taking us into his confidence. Gradually a more unpleasant side to his character is revealed, as he becomes more and more involved in the dark dealings of the body snatchers himself. His situation created ambivalent feelings in me because I couldn't help feeling a certain empathy towards him, but I also often felt like shouting at him to shake him out of his passivity. It is painful and infuriating in equal measures to watch as he slips ever further away from a previously upheld morality, allowing the lure of easy money to become the thought foremost in his mind when it is presented to him, forsaking his humanity in the bargain; in the most unpleasant passages the novel recalls the notorious deeds of Burke and Hare in Edinburgh. Even to himself he shies away from admitting what he has done, only ever calling it ‘the thing’. When eventually his past seems to catch up with him, and he is shunned by everyone in the colony, I only felt that he was receiving his just deserts, and could not feel sorry for him. At the very end he talks about being remade, yet personally I can’t see it: at no point does he express remorse for the crimes he has committed, and, no matter where he goes, I feel his secret will always follow him. With his actions, Gabriel has broken the most basic moral code there is, and there will be no redemption for him. ( )
  passion4reading | Jun 25, 2013 |
The story of one man's descent into a nightmare of self-loathing in which his humanity and compassion is sucked out of him. The novel has a brilliant sense of time and place with excellent moody atmospheric writing

The slippery, shifting nature of the storyline with its first person narrative and prose style can be difficult to get into initially but you are soon hooked in by the captivating writing. For example consider the opening sentences:

In their sacks they ride as in their mother’s womb: knee to chest, head pressed down, as if to die merely to return to the flesh from which we were born, and this a second conception. A rope behind the knees to hold them thus, another to bind their arms, then the mouth of the sack closed about them and bound again, the whole presenting a compact bundle, easily disguised, for to be seen abroad with such a cargo is to tempt the mob.

I thoroughly enjoyed the first half of the book but I felt the plot became disjointed, fragmented and inconsistent and ultimately I felt unsatisfied with the unexpected coda.
( )
  jan.fleming | May 2, 2013 |
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Book description
It is London, 1826. Leaving behind his father's tragic failures, Gabriel Swift arrives to study with Edwin Poll, the greatest of the city's anatomists. It is his chance to find advancement by making a name for himself. But, instead, he finds himself drawn to his master's nemesis, Lucan, the most powerful of the city's resurrectionists and ruler of its trade in stolen bodies. Dismissed by Mr Poll, Gabriel descends into the violence and corruption of London's underworld, a place where everything and everyone is for sale, and where - as Gabriel discovers - the taking of a life is easier than it might seem.

Haiku summary
Young Gabriel Swift
Forsakes his humanity
By snatching bodies.
(passion4reading)

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London 1826. Gabriel Swift arrives to study with Edwin Poll, the greatest of the city's anatomists. It is his chance to find advancement by making a name for himself. But instead he finds himself drawn to his master's nemesis, Lucan, the most powerful of the city's resurrectionists and ruler of its trade in stolen bodies.… (more)

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