April 2006

Arts & Letters

‘The Resurrectionist’ by James Bradley

By Cameron Woodhead

With The Resurrectionist, James Bradley enters the dark realm of Gothic fiction. Set in London in the 1820s, the novel concerns Gabriel, a young gentleman apprenticed to one of the city’s leading anatomists. Finding fresh corpses to dissect is a grisly and (sometimes literally) cutthroat business, one presided over by the sinister Lucan. When Gabriel is dismissed from his medical post, he joins Lucan and the ‘resurrectionists’, descending into an amoral nightmare world in which his humanity is slowly leeched away.

Bradley’s third novel is the child of an extraordinarily difficult labour, and it shows. Sections of this book seem almost agonisingly controlled – the prose carved into small, formally elegant bites. The effect is doubly creepy. The book’s gruesome content gets mirrored in Bradley’s style, which is always on the verge of dismembering itself.

Whatever imaginative impedance is at work here leads to the occasional descriptive triumph: Gabriel’s hands presented as “mute implements, raw and clotting”, for instance. But for all its statuary and leering monuments, The Resurrectionist is still a cemetery of a novel.

The most pressing reason for this is that the nineteenth century was a period of near-mythic loquacity. It produced some of the greatest masters of narrative. Bradley’s aesthetic – pared back and imagistic – doesn’t diminish his novel’s imagery and ornamentation. But its application to dialogue proves disastrous.

Their clipped speech makes the characters seem ghoulishly vapid and underdeveloped. It also leaves Bradley insufficient scope to flesh out his protagonist’s human qualities, which, given the narrative’s dramatic swing to the inhuman, reduces the impact of the novel.

The best part of The Resurrectionist is its closing section, when Bradley leaves the gloom and ordure of London for the harsh sun of rural New South Wales. The dam inside Bradley’s head breaks, the undead melt away, and his characters – though withered by the rigours of an alien environment – come alive.

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