You Review a Local Author: The Anatomy Lesson – Nina Siegal

Reviewed by Richard Metcalf

Set in 16th century Amsterdam, this highly enjoyable historical novel centers around the genesis of the Rembrandt painting from which it takes its name, The Anatomy Lesson of Dr Nicolaes Tulp. The cast of compelling characters includes Rembrandt himself, as well as the two principal human subjects of the painting – the respected citizen Dr Tulp, and the common criminal Adriaen Adriaenszoon (alias ‘Aris the Kid’), whose mortal remains the good doctor is shown dissecting before a learned audience.

Through this choice of characters, the author evokes the various strata of society in the Dutch Golden Age, and illustrates how – as an artist – Rembrandt is able to navigate between the hierarchies, in the process capturing the heart of the human condition in his paintings.

The Anatomy Lesson is written largely in the first person, using the voices of several different characters, including a present-day conservator working to restore the painting, and the philosopher Rene Descartes, a contemporary of Rembrandt who is known to have visited Amsterdam at around this time. In the reality of the novel at least, Descartes is present at the dissection, and he muses in imagined correspondence on the significance which the work of Tulp and his contemporary physicians might have had for our understanding of the relationship between our physical bodies and our spiritual selves.

It’s not all philosophy and art, however, as the writing is bound by large seams of romance and humor provided by two purely imagined characters: Flora, devoted wife of Aris; and the aptly named Jan Fetchet, who sources the body for Tulp and instigates probably the book’s only laugh-out-loud moment with an absurd parody of a Monty Python sketch (hopefully that’s a teaser, folks, not a spoiler).

The novel is at its most convincing and moving when the author lets rip with her knowledge and experience of fine art, as her fiercely-imagined Rembrandt speaks of his work and of the forces which drive him to paint.

Nina Siegal has produced an entertaining and thought-provoking novel, interlacing serious themes – there are even some meta-textual nods and winks to the subject of (re)writing/painting history – with a pacey, colourful narrative.  In short, well worth a read.

Reviewed by Linda Radwan

The idea of The Anatomy Lesson alone seemed marvelous. When I started reading it, I was already fascinated by the introduction and could not wait to read more. I was moved by the parts in which Aris Kindt was waiting for his execution, I felt like I was there with him and I felt anxious and scared all at once. I pitied Flora but I also admired her for her strength to carry on. I was truly impressed during her conversation with Rembrandt and in that scene I saw how both characters grew. I loved how Rembrandt changed his perspective and how that affected the final painting.

I enjoyed the writing techniques that were used: the name description of each chapter such as ‘The Body’ which was an extraordinary way of bringing the different perspectives into light, the combination of the narrator’s part (at the beginning and at the end of the book) and the story told by the characters themselves (especially when Rembrandt came into view and I could read what was on his mind). The way the characters are described makes them real and it makes the story as real as any historical event.

I do feel like you have to be an art lover to understand some things, especially the detailed descriptions of the painting mentioned in the conservator’s notes.

If art and history is what you love then this book is the perfect combination and it is definitely worth reading. It is clear that Nina Siegal has done a great deal of research to set up such perfect scenes and characters. Well done!

You Review a Local Author: Books with an orange connection, reviewed by ABC customers.

Nina Siegal lives in Amsterdam and is managing editor of Flow Magazine International.