Book review

Fleshmarket by Nicola Morgan (2003)

You'll have to be tough to read this one.

It's about progress in medicine, surgery actually, nearly two hundred years ago. In 1822 surgeons in Edinburgh were already performing operations to remove cancerous tumours from their courageous patients. But there were a couple of things that the surgeons had not yet discovered. The first thing was anaesthetic. All the operations were carried out on patients fully conscious. And the second thing was that to prevent infection operations should be carried out in sterile conditions.

The brilliant and respected surgeon Dr Robert Knox operates on Robbie's mother, in just those conditions, at the beginning of this story. But she dies five days later from infection. Robbie is devastated. And so is Robbie's father who abandons his two children to their own fate.

Fourteen year old Robbie and his little sister, Essie, survive as best they can in the stinking slums of Edinburgh. It is a desperate hand-to-mouth existence, made all the worse for Robbie's complete inability to forgive or forget the surgeon who he blames for ruining his life.

Continually drawn to Dr Knox, like a moth to a candle flame, Robbie stumbles into the grim world of Burke and Hare, the bodysnatchers, who supply Dr Knox. For how can Dr Knox improve his performance at the operating table without his quiet practice and research into human anatomy behind closed doors? Must medical advancement come at such a high human price? And is Dr Knox to be revered for his brilliant research into human anatomy, or reviled for his apparent lack of human emotion?

Knox paused before answering, his voice cello-sounding, soft as plums. 'Because I buy more bodies than the law allows. That is all. I need them. I need them for my work, work that saves lives. Your life, perhaps. Everyone knows what I do. Everyone knows of my skill. People may not like the idea of anatomy but they all too quickly forget their qualms when I save their lives.'

Can Robbie ever understand what drives the enigmatic Dr Knox? How can Robbie reconcile himself to his past and get on with his future? Is there a future for Robbie?

If you want to know, you'll have to read the book. It's a vivid and compelling story, saturated with gruesome images of poverty and squalor in nineteenth century Edinburgh. But you'll also find a satisfying emotional journey, and some interesting ethical points along the way, all still relevant to current developments in medicine. Highly recommended!

What can I read next?

This is Nicola Morgan's second book for young people. Have a look at her first one. It's very different:

If you enjoy historical reality, you might like to look at this shocking book by Jamila Gavin:

Or this excellent time slip story by James Heneghan might interest you:

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