Friday, 27 August 2010

Never judge a book by its theme tune

I often cite Randall and Hopkirk (Deceased) , Whatever Happened to the Likely Lads? and The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy as typical of excellent television programmes that are preceded by brilliant theme tunes. Books, we are told, should not be judged in the same way, and, unfortunately for James Bradley, his novel The Resurrectionist has a superb cover.

I have a sneaking regard for the reading public’s star rating on Amazon’s reviews; rarely does it fail (I have theories about Amazon review scores which I might share one day). The Resurrectionist averages forty-four percent, which I think is a little generous. However, there is a decent story within the book that’s dying to get out.

Irresistible, isn't it?
My first point is about ignorance on my part. I didn’t realise that ‘resurrectionist’ is a euphemism for ‘graverobber’, so I thought the book was a take on Frankenstein. Second, on revisiting the blurb, I realise it hands out information not covered in the novel – bizarre. Third, what a dirge this novel becomes.

Set in 1826, the narrator is main protagonist Gabriel Swift, apprentice anatomist, the day-to-day business of which is beautifully rendered, if somewhat gruesome, in the first chapter. However, the first person perspective fails to deliver for Bradley. Throughout the novel, we get no sense of Swift’s personality from the narration (think the opposite of Holden Caulfield), and the start to some chapters feels very third person omniscient.

We follow Swift in this near-linear story as he falls foul of colleagues, resurrectionists and whores, descending into the most unconvincing opium habit ever, and finally attempting to reconstruct his life abroad. Thinking about it, the title is misleading: Swift is a resurrectionist for no more than ten percent of the book’s three hundred and thirty three pages.

Shelley's inhuman character had more personality than Gabriel Swift
Despite its promising start, the novel deteriorates into a monotone record of minimal drama, split into one and two-page chapters that give a disjointed feel. There is simply no energy in the prose whatsoever. Bradley tries to create suspense by using what can only be described as reverse dramatic irony, where a character interacts in plain view of Swift, who he knows, and who we have already met, yet remains nameless at that point in the text. Ridiculous.

There is a general lack of characterisation throughout, including the protagonist-narrator. With Swift, we start off feeling neutral about him, and then, as we read on, we discover reasons to dislike him. Perhaps if we understood the motivations for his actions we might identify with him, but Bradley insists on telling us what to think instead of showing us, and in the end we just don’t care. The blurb promises a classic gothic antagonist in Lucan, but he turns out to be a damp squib.

Resurrectionists, apparently
The final quarter of the novel, set ten years after the resurrectionist events, has some redeeming features. In fact, if Bradley had been given a half-decent editor, this would have been where the story starts. We would have seen Swift in his ordinary world, tutoring the offspring of Australian landowners, and painting his beloved stuffed birds; a picture of sweetness and light. The chance arrival of former anatomist colleague, Robert Newsome, throws Swift’s happy existence into turmoil, dragging up the miserable existence he suffered in London ten years ago, affecting the relationships he has built up. The ending, of course, would be the memory of the bird crashing in to the mirror (p,251), thus making sense of his birds-only portfolio (how sad).

All-in-all, the book fails to deliver in character, drama and style, and takes no advantage of its gothic appeal. If it had a theme tune, it would be something like The Love Boat, and then we’d know not to read it.

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