Nemo Johnston is an intelligent black man with a strong instinct for survival. He is also a slave in antebellum South Carolina, and is purchased by Dr. Frederick Johnston and his colleagues of the South Carolina Medical College in 1857 to serve as a janitor, a butler and, most importantly, as a body-snatcher (or “resurrectionist”) for the school’s desperate anatomy department. Nemo undertakes the job with the understanding that it is primarily black bodies he will be unearthing for the dissections, but any sense of betrayal of his people is tempered by a combination of the wages he earns, the blackmail potential he holds against his own masters, and the knowledge he rapidly gains in the anatomy lab, which soon catapults him into the role of instructor at the College. Meanwhile, and perhaps most importantly, he is watching the Confederacy slowly yield to General Sherman’s advance, and dares to hope that freedom may someday be his.
The author tells Nemo Johnston’s story in parallel to one taking place at the same medical college in the 1990s, where a young white doctor, Jacob Thacker, is working off a two-year suspension of his license in the school’s public relations department because of an addiction to anti-anxiety pills during his difficult residency. When the bones of Nemo’s many cadavers are unearthed on the school’s grounds 140 years later, the funds-strapped administration demands that Thacker step in to hush up the story in fear that exposure of the school’s ugly racial history will threaten their endowments and their profits.
While Nemo is definitely the more complicated and thus more challenging of our two main protagonists, the character of Jacob speaks to every one of us as we see him forced to choose between what is right and what is expedient, and to face the consequences of his choices. Guinn has done a first-rate job of researching the 19th-century medical history in his book, and loosely bases his story of Nemo on a similar figure in the real-life history of the Medical College of Georgia where the author himself was born.
Guinn’s writing is colorful, compelling, and beautiful, although his often vivid descriptions of the exhuming, embalming and dissection of human cadavers are not for the squeamish. I particularly loved the novel’s implicit metaphor of slavery as a form of body-snatching, and emancipation as a form of resurrection. If this debut novel has any weaknesses, they lie in a handful of secondary plot points which either required more development or tougher editing. To my mind, these did not detract from a powerful story that needed to be told, and that was told powerfully.