Anatomy of a Heretic

Written by David Mark
Review by Susie Helme

The wreck of the Dutch East Indiaman Batavia off the coast of western Australia in 1629 sets in train a story of human depravity that continues to inspire novelists with a taste for horror. Anatomy of a Heretic begins in London in 1628. Gentleman assassin Nicolaes de Pelgrom, aka Wiebbe Hayes, is the devoted nephew of George Villiers, Duke of Buckingham. He is engaged by the widow Mariam Towerson to travel to the East Indies to exact revenge for the murder of her husband.

On the same ship is apothecary Jeronimus Cornelisz, hired in Amsterdam to escort precious cargo. Cornelisz has just murdered someone with a poisoned letter and is rumoured to be under the influence of the Rosicrucian Torrentius. Also aboard is the beautiful Lucretia Jansz and her maid Zwaantie, who is under Cornelisz’s influence.

The commander of the Batavia is Francisco Pelsaert, constantly at odds with the skipper Ariaen Jacobsz. The mutinous mood of the crew and the enmity between the men in charge provide perfect fodder for the nefarious schemes of Cornelisz. As the two assassins clash, so do their respective missions. The ship is wrecked on the reefs of the Abrolhos Islands, and the voyage becomes the stuff of history: dark, carnal, and bloodthirsty.

The author gives little for free, jumping straight into gorgeous and grotesque scenes with no backstory, which makes the first few chapters hard reading, but it’s worth it once you get going. The writing is sumptuous and decadent, including some truly inspired curse words—e.g., ‘shit-spangled daughters of flux-cunnied curs’. I felt certain that an evil character like Cornelisz would not prove to be well rounded, but even he becomes briefly human in the face of cataclysm.

This lush masterpiece lives in the underbelly of a vibrant period when unscrupulous adventurers clawed for profit from the wider world being opened to Europeans.