Saturday, July 02, 2011

The Bone Garden

The Bone Garden, a standalone novel, is my first experience with a Tess Gerritsen book, but based upon this reading experience, it is unlikely to be my last.  The bulk of the novel is set in 1830s Boston and concerns what happens when a serial killer strikes that city- with flashes forward to modern day Boston and some of the descendants of those featured in the historical section of the story.

Julia Hamill, 38-years-old and freshly divorced from a jerk, is the new owner of an old Boston house that had been in the hands of the same family for well over one hundred years prior to her purchase of it.  Julia is starting to doubt how wise an investment she has made by purchasing a house needing so much maintenance, but she decides to start with cleaning up the neglected garden (where the previous homeowner’s body was found) behind the house. 

Already having dug up several large rocks from the ground, Julia is shocked to discover that what she believed to be just another rock in her way is really a human skull.  She is relieved, after authorities are called in to investigate, that the body she has unearthed dates back to the early decades of the 19th century.  Thus, begins Julia’s attempt, with the help of a relative of the home’s former owner, to discover the identity of the body and its connection to her new home.

At this point, Gerritsen shifts the novel’s locale to historical Boston, in particular to a medical school attached to one of the city’s larger hospitals.   Here the reader meets what are actually the book’s two main characters: Norris Marshall, a poor medical student barely able to stay in school, and Rose Connolly, a 17-year-old recent Irish immigrant whose older sister will die of “childbirth fever” in the hospital’s maternity ward.  When a killer, dubbed by the press the “West End Reaper,” begins to prey on those associated with the hospital and medical school, Norris and Julia will learn that only by watching out for each other are they likely to survive the Reaper experience.

The strength of The Bone Garden is its focus on the medical schools of the day, a period during which these schools were often willing to purchase dissecting cadavers from whomever showed up with one to sell them – no questions asked.  This was the age of grave robbing, a time during which freshly buried loved ones might disappear within hours of being buried, only to be used in some medical theater for the instruction of a few dozen medical students.  It was also a time when doctors and their students spread infection from one patient to the next by not washing their hands or medical instruments.  This was particularly dangerous in maternity wards attended by unwitting doctors as they examined one new mother after the other. 

As a thriller/mystery goes, The Bone Garden rates as pretty much average.  As historical fiction, it is a very affecting look at a time during which so many big city residents struggled to stay alive in conditions that are almost unbelievable today.

Rated at: 4.5

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