by Doug MacLeod
312 pages, Penguin Books Australia
Review by SF Winser
Heads-up at the start: I read this one as part of my quest to read as many of the YA shortlisted books for the big Aussie children's fiction award. This has apparently screwed up my judgement. Be warned.
The Life of a Teenage Body-Snatcher defies my abilities to categorise it. It's often very funny though I wouldn't quite call it a comic novel. The best I can do is: it's a black-humoured book, inspired by, and partly parody of, Victorian-era penny-dreadfuls, turned into rollicking, adventurous farce. One thing I can call it without reservation is bloody good fun.
This is supposedly YA. Forget that. Adults should jump in with both feet. No, don't do that. It's a book and you'll tear the pages. Jump in with both eyes. If you have two. And know how to jump with them.
The closest I can think of comparing this book to is Jane Austen's 'Northanger Abbey'. That, too, was a parody of the Gothic Horror dreadfuls. But it was necessarily restricted to the romance and haunted house aspects. This, by simple expedient of having a Victorian-male protagonist and being written in the 21st Century, is more far-reaching in plot. It's more adventurous, with more mature undertones and can go places other than front parlours and nice carriages.
Thomas Timewell is sixteen and wants to be a doctor. His grandfather, a man of science, has willed his body to be donated to surgeons for anatomy practice, but his mother has demanded that the body be buried. In order to fulfil his grandfather's wishes, Thomas visits the grave on the night of the burial with a shovel and some grand ambitions.
In the process he meets Plenitude, the resurrectionist, who sells fresh bodies to medical schools. Thomas ends up working with him on other burials in a mixture of curiosity, honour and blackmail.
Plenitude is an awesome character. A smart, well-spoken charmer. He's full of lies. He's full of good-will. He's full of tricks. He might have a sea of human heads in his basement. He likes orange muffins.
I picture him as a plummier, well groomed Michael Caine. He's a happy conman with a world of secrets.
But Plenitude isn't the only great character. Thomas encounters rival resurrectionists, a pack of addled society matrons with laudnum addictions, mad gypsy women covered in tattoos handing out dead mice as good luck charms, sociopathic school-masters and the worst novelist in the world. There are at least one – possibly two – bakers selling meat pies full of human meat. And the Grim Reaper shows up along the way.
There are also more than a few twists worthy of Victorian literature. A couple of laugh-out-loud moments contrast with moments of horror and even touching relationships.
This was the book in my current pile that I was most worried about. The title screamed 'supernatural horror cash-in'. It felt like the token fun novel in a shortlist full of 'worthy' literature. It ended up kickin' its fair share of literary butt. It took me a few pages to get into, and the denouement is a touch lighter in tone than I liked after the dark climax, but once I was in I enjoyed every bit of it. I'm going to try and get to a few more of Doug MacLeod's books, because this one was so very, very good.