The emotional trauma of being an unwanted child is something that stays with people their whole lives. In Clio Gray’s “The Anatomist’s Dream” Philbert is born with a large deformity on his head. He’s wholly different from the perfect daughter his mother was hoping to give birth to and she instantly rejects him. His childhood is strangely haunted by the image of the girl that his mother wanted but didn’t get. She abandons him as does his father leaving him to the care of a kindly neighbour. When the neighbour grows ill she knows adolescent Philbert must find a new place to live. He meets a diminutive woman named Lita who is part of a travelling carnival/freakshow that is passing through town. Along with his pet pig Kroonk, Philbert finds a place he can really call home with these misfit performers and embarks on a series of journeys throughout war-torn Prussia in the mid-1800s.
Fiction that highlights the lives of extreme outsiders such as people with severe deformities or unusual conditions can provide an interesting commentary on how society reacts to difference. Angela Carter’s magisterial “Nights at the Circus” is the supreme example which uses fantastical elements to explore our attitudes towards women. “The Anatomist’s Dream” is focused much more on the personal meaning of fate. Philbert is a rejected outsider who might have been left to die if it weren’t for an individual’s kindness. Yet, he believes through his friend Kwert who is a “Teller of Signs” that he is fated for great things. Philbert’s condition makes him an unusually sensitive repository for the lives of those around him: “His head was a treasure trove of other people’s stories, a bottle into which the ships of their lives could be folded and stowed, as if he were a whirlpool at the centre of his universe, sucking in everything about him.” He finds himself tangled in the heart of a revolution that will change the political structure of Europe. The question the author explores is whether greatness is what we really want in life. She asks whether it’s better to be content living a humble life with those we love and who love us in return.
Where this novel really shines are in the connections Philbert makes with different unusual characters he meets during his travels. Upon joining the travelling fair, one of Philbert’s main duties is caring for a man named Hermann whose chronic skin condition requires constant attention. It has the effect of making his skin look like scales so he is touted as being a fish man and put on public display. The bond Philbert forms with him and several other people he meets on his journey felt very moving because of what he gives to them and what they freely give back. It shows how people can rise about the difficulties of their personal circumstance to support each other. I particularly liked how Gray explores the complicated way we want others near us, but not too close: “sometimes a person doesn’t want a crowd but doesn’t want to be alone either, just wants to know someone is there, not too far away in the darkness.” These subtly drawn feelings made me really care about the fates of these characters, but some of the action in the story which is the result of a revolutionary uprising complicates and distracts from the greater intimate moments in this novel.
I usually really like journey novels – “Don Quixote”, of course, being the classic. Kazuo Ishiguro’s “The Buried Giant” or Marie Phillips' hilarious “The Table of Less Valued Knights” are more recent examples. The idea of centring a novel on an outsider who witnesses the monumental changes happening in the Prussian empire is an interesting experiment. However, Gray introduces a lot of peripheral characters and charges through scenes of violence so hurriedly I often found myself confused about what was happening. There is some sumptuous commentary on the complexity of political allegiances throughout. At one point Gray states: “The puppets of revolution are many and varied but every puppet needs its strings.” Allegiances are formed, people are deceived and whole swathes of the population are felled in the skirmishes. Whether people survive or fall is based on chance or a canny ability to evade being caught in the crossfire. This is all interesting, but the book feels at times overwhelmed by the magnitude of social change which lets down the array of fascinating characters it contains.