Newes From the Dead is based on a case from 1650 England. A servant named Anne Green was hung only to wake up on the operating table just as physicians were about to cut into her for medical research. This book tells the story from two points of view – from Anne’s as she lays paralyzed, almost dead, and remembers her past and what led up to the hanging; and from a medical student named Robert who is in the room as they prepare to cut Anne open. The chapters alternate, first person narrative for Anne, third person for Robert. In the back of the book there is a copy of the 1651 pamphlet about the case, called “Newes From the Dead.”
The story behind this book was fascinating. I loved learning about the laws that existed at the time, and the different ways they were enforced. Women and men were treated differently; the poor and the rich were again treated differently. Anne Green from all accounts is obviously innocent and her rich employer definitely had his hand in the rushed trial and guilty verdict. Doctors considered it a deliverance from God that Anne came back to life – they called it a proof of her innocence. She received a full pardon, and her employer died three days after her resurrection. These aren’t spoilers, I promise! This is actually just case history. Like I said, I found the story fascinating. The historical case itself.
The book, on the other hand, was merely a vehicle for me. I didn’t like the writing at all! Especially the first person sections from Anne. It felt so faked and forced, like the author was trying to use old speech but didn’t pull it off very well. Now I’m not a big fan of historical fiction in general, and language is one of those things that has to be done very, very well for me to buy it. Like The Witch of Blackbird Pond – I barely noticed the different ways they spoke because it felt so natural and accurate. This felt far from natural or accurate, both in language and in thought patterns. I can’t see a devoted Christian girl used by the gentry remembering the events as him running his hands all over her “private parts.” I’d think she’d be more ashamed, would try to hide that even from herself, definitely would not use modern thinking for it.
The sections with the doctors were a little better. They didn’t feel forced, though they still felt a little fake. I don’t want to say unresearched, because I know the author did a lot of research into the case! But still, some things were just wholly unbelievable in Robert’s character and his progression through to the end.
Because I was interested in the historical case, and because this is for a book club this month, I kept reading. It was an easy book to swallow in full-page gulps, passing over individual words that killed me when I focused on them, and just getting the basic plot as I went by. I read the book in about an hour, and I doubt I’ll have much recollection of it in a month. But if I’d tried to read like normal, I wouldn’t have made it twenty pages in. The writing rubbed me that badly. It’s a weird contrast in reviewing the book – fascinating case, not so great fiction… On the bright side, it makes me want to go read some nonfiction about Anne Green, who I’d never heard of before this book!
ETA: Because a couple people are not sure what I mean about the mediocre/false language, let me give you a paragraph example:
A month later I was still at Dun’s Tew Manor, lacing myself into my bodice and stomacher each morning and pulling them a little tighter betimes. I’d not left the Reades’ household, for a lethargy seemed to have come over me so that I had neither the energy to leave, nor the courage to go home and face my father. I knew I should have told Ma of my situation, or at least got a message to her, for it was probable that she thought the cunning woman’s cordial had been effective, but I did not wish to cause her any more distress. As well as this, I could not have faced the walk back to my village, for my legs ached mightily and I was constantly weary.