All the narrator of The Anatomist’s Tale, by Tauno Biltsted, wants is have a career as a doctor in mid-1700s London. His lack of money and connections makes that modest dream impossible. So, like many young men of his place and time, the narrator signs on with a merchant ship to make his fortune on the seas. We learn right from the start that things do not go well for the young doctor because he tells us that he has ended up in the Marshalsea, one of the most notorious prisons in British history. In every chapter, the narrator unspools his tale to anyone who will listen, from a charwoman in the prison to the judges of the Admiralty. How did such good intentions go so wrong?
The unnamed narrator (most people call him Surgeon) signs on with an apparently charming captain to sail on The Royal Fortune. Surgeon will get a share of the profits after the voyage and, unlike the Navy, he has the chance to leave if he doesn’t like shipboard life once the trip is over. It seems like a good plan. Under a different captain, it might have been. But as Surgeon reveals to his various audiences, the captain’s brutality towards the crew leads the men to mutiny…which leads to Surgeon’s becoming a reluctant pirate-doctor.
I don’t know if the Admiralty will agree that Surgeon is innocent of the charges of piracy, but I was certainly convinced. As Surgeon’s tale rollicks along on the high seas and the deep South American jungle, we see a man who really didn’t have a choice. Circumstances were against Surgeon right from the beginning. When he was a child, enclosure meant that his father was no longer able to make a living from farming. The only good part of his life was his apprenticeship to a butcher and his years working his way through medical school. Once at sea, among the pirates, Surgeon has nowhere to go. He literally can’t get away from them. Worse, he’s tainted by association with the pirates. If caught, Surgeon faces a cruel execution. This theme of hopelessness and powerlessness is repeated in the stories Surgeon shares. Men are pressed into service on British ships. Africans are enslaved. One African even loses her identity as a woman to live more safely as a man. (The character of Jalil is fascinating.)
To cap it all off, The Anatomist’s Tale is written in beautiful, period-accurate prose. I loved the long sentences and the broad vocabulary. I really felt like I was listening to Surgeon, like I was listening to someone who lived in the 1700s. Surgeon’s words brought to life what it might have been like to sail with an international crew from London, to the Caribbean, to a place somewhere on the northern coast of South America called New Madagascar. This book is brilliant, on all counts. It’s an amazing work of historical fiction.
I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley, for review consideration.