Tuesday, June 05, 2007

Review: Resurrection Men

T.K. Welsh is fast becoming one of my favorite writers. His work transcends genre and audience classification,* and his style is provocatively old fashioned for the early 21st century. Welsh's first novel, The Unresolved, employed a ghost narrator in the telling of a tragic historical event and was one of my favorite novels of 2006. Welsh's sophomore novel, Resurrection Men, is straight-up historical fiction with a focus on class and the gritty streets of 19th-century London that would make Dickens proud.

Resurrection Men begins in Surrey in 1852 when a repellent Marquess of Stanton runs over a small boy in his carriage. The Marquess wants to leave the severely injured boy by the side of the road because "the boy is obviously a vagabond" and "shouldn't have been gamboling out there on the road." But, his lady friend insists and the boy is delivered to a Dr. Lambro. While Dr. Lambro operates on the boy (who has broken ribs and a collapsed lung), he tells a story to his neighbor Colonel Maxwell about another little boy born 25 years earlier in Italy. This boy, Victor, is the hero of Resurrection Men.

Victor begins his life in Italy and watches the assassination of his parents as Carbonari. He's sold as a Cabin boy and, after a hellish voyage or two, washes up on the shores of England with a leg shattered into bits. A kindly old man takes care of him, helps him to heal, and teaches him to fight. When times get tough, however, the old man sells the boy to a "Master," a man who uses children to beg on the streets, pocketing a share of their earnings. Victor travels to London and the Master with a pair of Resurrection Men--men who steal corpses for autopsies and scientific research.

Victor makes friends amongst the other children, particularly with a young boy named Nico, who is also from Italy, and with a blind girl named Rebecca. Each day the children take an animal with them in an attempt to gain sympathy and attention amongst the crowds of London. Welsh's London is place of nightmares and dreams, of fog and pollution, of rich and poor. Victor watches as his friends are used and abused (Rebecca most of all) and vows to protect them in the streets and in the home of the Master.

One day, a wealthy, kindly doctor approaches Victor and Rebecca on the streets and offers to fix Victor's mangled leg. After the operation, Victor stays with the doctor and begins helping in his practice. On one occasion, he attends a private autopsy and discovers that it's his friend Nico on the table. He discovers the Resurrection Men who took him to London are responsible for Nico's death and plan on providing more corpses culled from the Master's children.

Resurrection Men is a moody, evocative tale in which more than bodies are resurrected--the souls of the primary characters are at stake as well. Welsh brings 19th-century London to life in all its horrors and brilliance and Victor is a hero worthy of the reader's attention. Pair this one with a classic in a high school classroom, or share it with an intelligent teen reader today.


* I have to admit I'm not entirely sure what makes Resurrection Men and The Unresolved Young Adult fiction outside the age of their narrators. These are books any adult would enjoy and, more importantly, think about long after reading.