The Anatomy Lesson
Offering a glimpse into a distant place and era often requires a sleight-of-hand trick or two from writers. They produce the flavor of the place and times, sometimes with scanty details, relying on plot and characters to carry most of the story. That is not the case with The Anatomy Lesson. Virtually every sentence is drenched in the atmosphere of 17th-century Amsterdam. We feel as if we are walking at Rembrandt’s side, in a cell awaiting the execution of a thief, rushing through the streets with the condemned’s lover in hopes of saving him. This is a novel to be absorbed for its rich evocation of a single day when one man died and another rose to fame for his art.
True, Siegal’s masterful imagining of the tale behind the famous painting that launched Rembrandt’s career holds no surprises. We know that Aris the thief will end up on Dr. Nicolaes Tulp’s slab. And yet we are drawn to read on. Siegal chooses to tell the tale through seven well-focused points of view. The players are labeled with an aspect of either body or mind, necessary to keep them straight, since all seven narrate from the first-person perspective. And so, Aris the thief is (or will be) The Body. Flora, the woman bearing his child, is (appropriately) The Heart. Fetchet, the procurer of cadavers and oddities, is The Mouth. Descartes, the famous philosopher, stands in as The Mind. Nicolaes Tulp, as the anatomist, is The Hand. And Rembrandt himself, observing all that happens, is The Eyes. The seventh voice we hear is of Pia, a 21st-century art historian. Getting used to hearing so many characters speaking up as “I” takes awhile, but once one is acclimated there is little to do but sit back and soak up the 17th century for as long as this brilliant novel lasts.