Thursday, January 1, 2009

Review: Newes from the Dead by Mary Hooper

Still catching up on the slew of books I read in the last couple of days of 2008. I've already finished my first book of 2009 (though I did technically start it yesterday), plus I want to do some sort of write up on my favorite books of 2008...I don't work for the next two days, so hopefully I'll catch up!

But first, Newes from the Dead.

It took all of my self control not to just flip to the end of the book and to learn what happened here. This is the story of Anne Greene, a woman who was hanged for infanticide, yet didn't die.

The book is told from two points of view in alternating chapters, starting with Anne Greene conscious, but unable to move. She knows she was hanged, and knows she should be dead, and yet...she doesn't seem to be. So Anne goes back to the beginning, and through her chapters relays the story of how she came to the gallows, as well as reflecting on where she may be now (purgatory? hell? Certainly not heaven, though at one point she thinks she sees angels).

The rest of the story takes place after Anne has been cut down from the gallows. She has been declared dead, and scholars and doctors are beginning to gather above an apothecary's shop in order to witness the dissection of Anne's corpse. Hers is one of the five bodies a year given to science in order for the scholarly men to learn about the human body. While these chapters are told in the third person, they are told from the point of view of Robert, a young scholar with a severe stuttering speech impediment. He's a smart and compassionate young man, and observant: he will be the first to notice movement under Anne's eyelids.

Neither half of the story seemed very interesting. Anne's story of how she ended up being sentenced to death is one that will be familiar to anyone who's read realistic fiction about maids in powerful households. Robert's half of the story is slow and methodical - we go through several chapters of waiting before all of the observers and doctors even show up to begin the dissection. Most of the drama in the early Robert chapters comes from Anne's former employer being impatient for the dissection to begin.

I kept reading because I wanted to know how on Earth Anne had survived a hanging, and just how well she survived. Was she going to be a vegetable? Or make a full recovery? The story itself never actually answers these questions. There's a comprehensive author's note at the end that explains what happened to Anne and the current theory on how she avoided dying. At the end is included the historical pamphlet with a contemporary account of Anne's story. Really, that was all I needed to satisfy my curiosity. The idea of someone surviving a hanging is interesting, but there really wasn't enough here to merit an entire novel.
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