The mid 18th century is a curious place for young Tristan Hart. Son of a country squire, Hart is as curious as he is intellectually gifted. Hart is especially obsessed with the inner workings of living creatures, in particular the relationship between the mind and body…and soul, should such a thing actually exist.
When he gets the opportunity to move to London and study anatomy with the lauded anatomist and physician William Hunter, Hart is able to indulge his every curiosity and desire, intellectual and carnal, and he has many.
The Tale of Raw Head and Bloody Bones is a challenging read in several ways. First, it may quite literally be challenging reading for some readers, as the author, Jack Wolf, has chosen to present the text in the voice of the 18th century, including period accurate spellings, grammar, colloquialisms, and capitalization of every noun—the last of which I admit I never quite got past and found continually distracting.
Beyond the literal, however, The Tale of Raw Head and Bloody Bones also tackles some rather serious and sensitive issues, and does so quite boldly and, at times, graphically. Starting with his experiments on small animals while still a boy, The Tale of Raw Head and Bloody Bones recounts Hart’s experiences with dissection and vivisection in explicit detail. The book also doesn’t shy away from the sadomasochistic experimenting Hart does once he discovers the whorehouses of London. And while Wolf’s writing in presenting these scenes is inarguably deft, that may not be enough to make the subject matter palatable for some readers.
Told from Hart’s first person point of view, the book also presents readers with a most unreliable narrator, as it quickly becomes evident that Master Hart is touched with more than a bit of madness. What exactly is real and what is the product of his overactive mind, however, is not always entirely clear. Ultimately, Hart’s internal struggle to use his intellect to tame his carnal impulses and desires serves as a concrete reflection of the greater conflict between emotion and reason that marked the Age of Enlightenment in which he finds himself, and it is in that exploration of the (seemingly) contradictory roles of science and faith that The Tale of Raw Head and Bloody Bones truly makes its mark.
This is definitely not a book for everyone—in addition to the things I’ve already mentioned, it also clocks in at a hefty 547 pages—but for those willing to meet it halfway, The Tale of Raw Head and Bloody Bones is one of those reads that will definitely stick with you, and will have you thinking back on it long after you’ve finished.
The Tale of Raw Head and Bloody Bones is available from Penguin Books (ISBN: 978-0143123828).
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