Skip to main content

An elegant folly

There was a time when any rich landowner worth his salt would build himself a folly, a bit of architectural madness designed to improve the view from his house or garden. Some of them are absolutely stunning - a fake castle built on the hills above or a bizarre three-sided tower looming at the edge of the grounds. The are all about appearance. They don't do anything apart from sit there and look wonderful. But this doesn't detract from their value.

I would say that a book I've been sent for review recently is the literary equivalent of one of those follies. It is magnificent, if practically hollow. The Resurrectionist is the first book by E. B. Hudspeth. It is a book of two parts. The first is the fictional biography of a late Victorian medical man, who starts as someone with a brilliant reputation as a surgeon helping to repair deformities. But over time he comes to believe that birth defects hark back to earlier forms of life now lost, forms that we retain in folk memories as mythical beasts like centaurs, harpies and satyrs. As this idea takes hold we see the surgeon, Spencer Black, descending to become a sideshow artist in a carnival, displaying first preserved freaks of nature (common enough in sideshows of the time), then creating his own fake corpses of hybrid creatures before finally plunging into the abyss of attempting to create these creatures alive. It is a dark and often unpleasant history.

The second part of the book consists of multiple anatomical drawings of these 'real' mythical beasts, with detailed skeletons, partially muscled cutaways and complete images of what they may have looked like when they roamed the Earth. I was a little disappointed there wasn't more narrative here. The problem, for instance, with flying horses and people is that they have far too much weight for the size of wing/musculature to ever lift - but there was no explanation of how this was got around.

However, there is no doubt that the drawings are beautifully done, with a totally straight face on the part of the author. It is truly a magnificent folly - but for me it doesn't quite work. The problem is that, unless you are into anatomy, once you've seen one detailed drawing of a skeleton, you've seen them all. So the second half of the book is worth little more than a quick flick through.

As for the first half, it is very neatly done with faked up posters and newspaper cuttings and sketches - but the problem here is that is almost too well done. What we have is a sober short biography of a Victorian character - but because this is how it is presented it has none of the dramatic drive of a good bizarre novel. I had to force myself not to skip some bits, because it was just a bit, well, worthy. Of course it isn't really - like the folly it is a cunning, intricate fake - but the trouble is it is a cunning intricate fake of something which is, despite the bizarre subject, rather dull.

Overall then, a brilliant idea, superbly executed, it just doesn't quite work as a piece of fiction for me, and I'm afraid the anatomical section, while briefly entertaining, did not hold my attention.

Find out more at Amazon.co.uk and Amazon.com.

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Is 5x3 the same as 3x5?

The Internet has gone mildly bonkers over a child in America who was marked down in a test because when asked to work out 5x3 by repeated addition he/she used 5+5+5 instead of 3+3+3+3+3. Those who support the teacher say that 5x3 means 'five lots of 3' where the complainants say that 'times' is commutative (reversible) so the distinction is meaningless as 5x3 and 3x5 are indistinguishable. It's certainly true that not all mathematical operations are commutative. I think we are all comfortable that 5-3 is not the same as 3-5.  However. This not true of multiplication (of numbers). And so if there is to be any distinction, it has to be in the use of English to interpret the 'x' sign. Unfortunately, even here there is no logical way of coming up with a definitive answer. I suspect most primary school teachers would expands 'times' as 'lots of' as mentioned above. So we get 5 x 3 as '5 lots of 3'. Unfortunately that only wor

Why I hate opera

If I'm honest, the title of this post is an exaggeration to make a point. I don't really hate opera. There are a couple of operas - notably Monteverdi's Incoranazione di Poppea and Purcell's Dido & Aeneas - that I quite like. But what I do find truly sickening is the reverence with which opera is treated, as if it were some particularly great art form. Nowhere was this more obvious than in ITV's recent gut-wrenchingly awful series Pop Star to Opera Star , where the likes of Alan Tichmarsh treated the real opera singers as if they were fragile pieces on Antiques Roadshow, and the music as if it were a gift of the gods. In my opinion - and I know not everyone agrees - opera is: Mediocre music Melodramatic plots Amateurishly hammy acting A forced and unpleasant singing style Ridiculously over-supported by public funds I won't even bother to go into any detail on the plots and the acting - this is just self-evident. But the other aspects need some ex

Mirror, mirror

A little while ago I had the pleasure of giving a talk at the Royal Institution in London - arguably the greatest location for science communication in the UK. At one point in the talk, I put this photograph on the screen, which for some reason caused some amusement in the audience. But the photo was illustrating a serious point: the odd nature of mirror reflections. I remember back at school being puzzled by a challenge from one of our teachers - why does a mirror swap left and right, but not top and bottom? Clearly there's nothing special about the mirror itself in that direction - if there were, rotating the mirror would change the image. The most immediately obvious 'special' thing about the horizontal direction is that the observer has two eyes oriented in that direction - but it's not as if things change if you close one eye. In reality, the distinction is much more interesting - we fool ourselves into thinking that the image behind the mirror is what's on ou