Sawbones by Catherine Johnson. A review by junior reporter Pheebs.
‘Digging up the past with a flair for the dramatic’
I loved the distinctive and original premise of Sawbones: a murder mystery, set in 1792, starring a anatomist’s mixed race apprentice and a fiery magician’s daughter as the main protagonists. These elements of the novel combine together to present the late 18th century in a perceptive and immersive fashion.
Sawbones considers the interaction between legality and class, racial and gender equality (at a time when the transatlantic slave trade was at its peak), and the acquisition of knowledge about anatomy through human dissection.
I have frequently encountered the first two themes in much of the historical fiction I’ve read, although this does not make the ideas explored in Sawbones any less profound. Ezra and Loveday, the hero and heroine of the book, are stopped in their investigation several times because of social limitations arising from Ezra’s skin colour, Loveday’s gender and their social status.
There was a strong refrain throughout the novel criticising this discrimination prevalent in Georgian society; instead promoting equality and valuing individuality. Since these examples of discrimination are not restricted to the Georgian period, and are, indeed, rife in contemporary society, I strongly believe that the message conveyed by Sawbones, of treating others with respect and pursuing justice for everyone regardless of their background, is incredibly appropriate for readers to bear in mind in the 21st century.
However, one of the most interesting things, to me, that the book explored was the third point of how science and medicine gained anatomical knowledge. It is something that I have never seen portrayed in literature before, except in the crude and incomplete coverage of ‘grave-robbers’.
I vaguely knew (from pre-GCSE History lessons) that there was a period in history where ‘grave robbers’ or ‘body-snatchers’ stole bodies from graves to supply anatomists, who wanted to dissect them in front of students. What I had not known, until Sawbones informed me on the topic and inspired me to research it a little farther, was that this period in history was the culmination of an increased demand for dissections whilst there was an insufficient supply from hanged criminals.
Sawbones flips the superficial disparity of the anatomists’ actions on its head, and reveals the noble aspirations behind what is, admittedly, an immoral exercise; namely the furtherance of scientific knowledge and a resulting improvement in medical practices. I found this new portrayal of grave robbing in the novel utterly fascinating. While I used to treat it with disdain, I now recognise that the anatomists’ actions formed the basis of modern anatomical knowledge, however gruesome the method of getting it may have been, without which many medical improvements might have been impossible.
(I would like to add at this point that I don’t advocate nor approve of stealing bodies from graves.)
I guess I could go on about the great messages sent by Sawbones forever, but I’m taking English A level and this is sounding too much like one of my essays already. Instead, let me recommend Sawbones just as a great novel in itself, because the actual writing is amazing, not simply what it conveys.
The characters, Ezra and Loveday, are extremely well constructed and relatable at all times; I really sympathised with Ezra, who is dragged deeper into Loveday’s investigation than he intended to be, and cheered whenever Loveday dug out her sword for a bit of intimidation (which she always did rather enthusiastically, I feel).
The mystery factor was excellently paced as well. Plus, lots of great action: chases, stand-offs, grave digging (duh), swash-buckling, and, last but not least, a show-stopping finale.
I would thoroughly recommend this book to anyone who would like a taste of history, with a dash of adventurous seasoning and a murder mystery garnish… Enjoy!
Catherine will be working with year 9 pupils on the ChipLitFest Schools Day on 26 April 2018