Anatomy of a Dissection

The Anatomy Lesson: A Novel by Nina Siegel

Nina Siegel’s The Anatomy Lesson is one of those wonderful novels that’s as solid in its realization as it is in its conception. The novel tells the back back story of Rembrandt’s The Anatomy Lesson, that wonderful work commissioned by the Amsterdam Guild of Surgeons in 1632. The surgeons and city functionaries are pictured gathered round a corpse, as one of their group explains the anatomy of the forearm. The light in the picture falls downward, illuminating the corpse, while placing the other figures in shadow, making death look like life and life like death.

The novel is written in an array of first-person voices, with occasional third person framing, all of whom are identified in ways suitable to the dissection process. We have “The Body,” Adriaen Adriaenszoon, the thief whose execution will provide the corpse for the dissection; “The Hands,” Dr. Nicolaes Tulp, who conducts the autopsy; “The Heart,” Adriaen’s lover Flora, pregnant with his child, who hopes to win his acquittal or, failing that, to claim his remains for burial; “The Mouth,” Jan Fetchet, dealer in curiosities and all manner of goods, who also serves as preparator for the Surgeon’s Guild, claiming and cleaning the bodies of the executed who will become the focus of dissections; “The Mind,” René Descartes, who like Dr. Tulp dreams of finding the location of the soul within the body; and “The Eyes,” Rembrandt himself, with connections to every other character in the book from thief to surgeon. We also get occasional excepts from the journal of a conservator working on the painting in the present day.

I can claim no expertise on 17th Century Amsterdam or the practice of science within the city, but it seems clear that the author has done her research carefully. The details of the city, its judicial processes, the dissection, the artistic process, and the later work by the conservator all ring true and are presented in sufficient detail that the reader engages in a kind of historical and professional learning while being carried along on the tide of the narrative.

This is a book that engages the reader on many levels simultaneously, eliciting consideration of scientific ethics, of the physical versus the spiritual self, of politics and self-promotion, of they ways in which lives unroll along clear but unlikely paths. Whether your greatest interest lies in historical fiction, the history of medicine, or the history of art, this novel will offer you a rich, rewarding read.

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