In early nineteenth century England resurrectionists were bodysnatchers, stealing the bodies of the recently dead to sell to universities and hospitals for anatomy classes. This was the ‘golden age’ of bodysnatching and for those who were prepared to take the risks, there were handsome profits to be made.
The Resurrectionist by Australian author James Bradley tells the story of Gabriel Swift who becomes apprecntice to an anatomist in London. Swift, training to become a surgeon, is set to work helping receive the bodies from the resurrectionists and then cleaning them and preparing them for dissection. But when he is dismissed he becomes a resurrectionist himself, eventually falling in with a group who murder their victims and sell their bodies, like the infamous Burke and Hare of Edinburgh. In fact there are many references to the story of Burke and Hare (including a character called Bourke). He finally finds himself transported to Australia where he attempts to build a new life under a new identity, only to find that he is unable to fully escape his past.
The novel, which is written mainly in short chapters, in the first person, almost like a diary. Bradley is a stylish writer for sure, although I found the pace of it rather slow until Swift becomes a bodysnatcher himself, at which point the narrative became much more gripping. The Resurrectionist, though, is a novel about resurrection in all its forms. Swift is constantly having to ressurect himself in order to survive (as an apprentice, as a bodysnatcher, as a murderer, as a convict, as an art teacher) and even at the end of the novel, when his new-found happiness is threatened by his past, there is a sense of optimism that he will resurrect himself once again. And what better place to do that than in Australia, which is portrayed as a land of resurrection, where people come to leave behind their past and be resurrected.
In the end, after a slightly shaky start, I found this a rather beautiful and poignant novel.