The Resurrectionist by James Bradley

James Bradley hales from Adelaide, Australia.  He is the author of three novels. This one, The Resurrectionist explores the murky world of underground anatomists in Victorian England.  He has also written a book of poetry, Paper Nautilus, and edited The Penguin Book of the Ocean and Blur, a collection of stories by young Australian writers.  Bradley also writes and reviews for a wide range of Australian and international newspapers and magazines.

James Bradley’s books have achieved great acclaim. He has won, at various times,  The Age Fiction Book of the Year Award, the Fellowship of Australian Writers Literature Award and the Kathleen Mitchell Award. He has also been shortlisted for awards including the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize.  is short stories have appeared in magazines including Overland and the Review of Australian Fiction.  In 2013 he was shortlisted for the Aurealis Award for Best Science Fiction Short Story.

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At the beginning of this book the language is superb.  The Resurrectionist starts in London, England in 1826. Gabriel Swift has left behind his father’s failures to study with Edwin Poll, the greatest anatomist in the city.  Swift takes his chance to make progress and a name for himself.  However, he finds himself drawn to his master’s nemesis, Lucan.  He is the most powerful of the city’s resurrectionists: the ruler of its trade in stolen bodies. Gabriel is dismissed by his master and descends into the violence and corruption of London’s underworld. It is a place where everything is for sale and the taking of a life is easier than it might seem. I enjoyed the style in which the relationship between characters and the events were described.

However, the main character does not reflect upon his behaviour or the possible choices he could make. It is unsettling that he acts as if choice does not exist. Thus, he spirals further and further downwards but does not give any good explanation for why he gives up his good position in society for that of an addict.  Still, the book does contain some of the most unsettling, beautiful descriptions of the underbelly of Georgian London. Bradley is a magical wordsmith.  The Resurrectionist  is dank, fetid and repulsive, strangely beguiling but in some ways unsatisfying.
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A full ten years later, the story carries forward to the life of another man teaches art in the penal colony of New South Wales, his spare time spent trapping and painting birds. However, he falls in love with one of his pupils, and no one escapes their past.  The worst prisons are often those we make for ourselves.  Personally, I would have preferred the story to stay in London.I felt the move in time and space at the end of the story was unnecessary and contrived.

Although some of the reviews of this book are damning, I do not feel it deserves that. For the vivid language alone, it is worth a read. The story is probably not as strong as the prose, but I did quite enjoy this book.

Valerie Penny

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