Courtney Lee Malpass Reviews Nina Siegal’s Novel The Anatomy Lesson

It has been said that a picture is worth a thousand words. But sometimes it is worth so much more. Have you ever wondered about the story those words could tell? Have you ever looked at a painting and tried to understand the people portrayed – what their lives were like, why they posed for this portrait, how they all knew each other?

Set in Amsterdam in 1632, The Anatomy Lesson by Nina Siegal tells the story behind one of Rembrandt’s most famous paintings, The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp. Through multiple first-person perspectives, Siegal brings the characters portrayed in the painting and those behind the scenes to life: “The Body,” Aris the Kid, a one-handed thief sentenced to hang on Justice Day; “The Heart,” Flora, Aris’ lover who tries to save his life for the sake of their unborn child; “The Mouth,” Jan Fetchet, a curio dealer hired to collect a body for the annual anatomy dissection; “The Mind,” Rene Descartes who accepts an invitation to the dissection on his quest to find where a person’s soul resides in the body; “The Hand,” Dr. Nicolaes Tulp, the subject of the painting; and “The Eyes,” the young 26-year-old Rembrandt himself, who the Amsterdam Surgeon’s Guild has commissioned to immortalize this moment. As the characters tell their versions of the events, relationships are unveiled and the connective tissue that holds seemingly random people together is dissected and reconstructed.

Nina Siegal’s research and attention to the details of 17th-century Amsterdam are apparent in every sentence. She creates a world that is familiar in emotion yet foreign, but accessible in history. She distinguishes the voices of every character and continually moves the story forward with each shift in perspective while coloring in the backgrounds of this cast of characters. What seems to be a random selection of people turns out to be a complex web of relationships that stretch all the way back to childhood. The three inserts of a third person perspective—a modern art conservationist’s notes on the images that lie beneath the surface of Rembrandt’s work—and the realization that the body, Aris the Kid, is still telling its story after it hangs may give the reader pause for a brief moment, but it does not deter from the overall story.

It is a love story. It is a race against time. It is a moral and ethical study in science and philosophy. It is an attempt to understand the process underneath layers of paint and canvas. But ultimately, The Anatomy Lesson is a historical fiction novel that brings to life a story that is not usually told, a story behind a moment in history captured by an artist’s brush and forever remembered as that—a moment. Nina Siegal’s novel reminds the reader that there is always more than meets the eye to a work of art or a moment in history. Whether your interest lies in history, art, science, philosophy, or good storytelling, The Anatomy Lesson will offer you a rich and rewarding reading experience.[author] [author_image timthumb=’on’][/author_image] [author_info]Courtney Lee Malpass is a writer, professor, book lover, and Philadelphia sports fan in the good and bad times. She holds a BA in Classical Culture and Society from Bryn Mawr College, and an MA in English and MFA in Creative Writing from Arcadia University. When not working on her historical fiction novels and short stories, she feeds her obsessions with film, Marvel Comics, theater, and traveling. You can follow her via Twitter @CourtneyMalpass.[/author_info] [/author]