Gabriel Swift lives in London in the 1820s, receiving tutorship from renowned Anatomist Edwin Poll. Much of his job involves cleaning cadavers delivered from grave robbers, known as resurrectionists. Edwin Poll then dissects the cadavers and teaches his students how they died, in order that they can learn his trade. While there, Gabriel makes friends, especially Charles – Mr Poll’s colleague, and Robert, a fellow student (or ‘prentice’ as they are known). However, due to the nature of the work, there are also a number of shady characters involved in this lifestyle – not least, Mr Tyne, who also lives in the same house as Gabriel, and Lucan – Mr Poll’s nemesis and the infamous leader of a gang of resurrectionists.
Gabriel finds himself drawn into both the worlds of his colleagues and friends, and that of Lucan, and when he makes an enemy of Mr Tyne and alienates those who may help him, it is to Lucan who he somewhat reluctantly turns. From there, he becomes involved with some much darker and more dangerous characters, and his life becomes unstable.
I’m not sure what to make of this book. I have read various negative reviews, but I actually did enjoy it. Told from Gabriel’s point of view, I felt that we did get real insight into his character, and in particular his sense of isolation from those around him. The chapters are generally very short (usually about three pages), and it makes for an interesting read. I loved the middle part of the story, where Gabriel becomes involved with Lucan’s ‘work’ – there was a genuine atmospheric gloom pervading the narration, and there are several Dickensian villains, who made for some interesting reading. It was during that point where I kept wanting to read “just a few more pages,” to see what happened.
The first part of the book was enjoyable, but I felt that there were too many unnecessary characters. A number of Charles’s friends get involved in the story, and I felt that their part in the story would have been better if it had either been expanded upon to make them more rounded characters, or cut out completely – there was not much character development for them, and they served as a vehicle to move certain sections of the story forward. I also found that Gabriel’s romance with Arabella, a local prostitute, added little to the story, although it did serve to heighten his disillusionment with his life and surroundings.
The final part of the story moves in a completely direction, and tells what happens 10 years after the events described in the first parts. I liked the idea of this conclusion of sorts (although I’m not giving away any secrets), but the pace did slow down in this section and was not as compelling reading as the novel had been up until then. This part would have been better as a short epilogue.
Some of the descriptions of the cadavers and the work of Mr Poll is described in great detail, and this may not appeal to more squeamish readers (although it did not bother me).
Overall, despite the criticism, I did enjoy this book. The events moved along at a quick enough pace to hook me into Gabriel’s story. I would certainly consider reading more by this author.