In the cruel, cold middle of 19th century Germany, a boy is born to poverty, anomie, and a deformity that extinguishes his mother’s love and marks him forever. Young Philbert has a tumorous head which dwarfs the rest of his body, a head that grows quickly and forces a premature end to his piteous childhood. As a young child, Philbert flees his hometown of Stassburg to run away with a “fair”, a traveling show of freaks and feats. Here, among fellow outcasts, Philbert finds something of a home and a family for the first time in his life. But poor Philbert is cursed by more than his visible deformities; chaos and tragedy seem to follow him, with those he cares for cast about in his wake.
A by-product of Philbert’s tumor is an eidetic or photographic memory.
“Philbert – who never knew his father’s name – had already lived a life most extraordinary, grown like a burr that snags everything it touches, taking away a little fragment from each life, each word, each story, each loss he encountered, of which there had been many.”
“It was as if his whole life was a river beside which he walked, a river that kept the reflections of his memories try and clear no matter what disturbed the waters or how far along its banks he went. His head was a treasure trove of other people’s stories, a bottle into which the ships of their lives could be folded and stowed, as if he were a whirlpool at the center of his universe, sucking in everything about him.”
Philbert’s proclivities forge a connection between hero and reader, who essentially share the memories the story creates. And in case this connection is too tenuous, Clio Gray employs metaphors and intricate descriptions throughout her work which engage all the reader’s senses. Gray seems to want her reader to gag, swoon, pant, and collapse in time with her characters. The result can be sensory overload, the reading a visceral, exhausting experience.
“We all make choices… We all push at the boundaries of other people’s lives, sometimes breaking right through the bubble that separates us, without us even knowing it.”
Again and again, Gray’s characters unwittingly breach boundaries, but these breaches are a calculated and deliberate trope through which Gray manipulates her story and her audience with masterful ease.
“The Anatomist’s Dream” is a story of catastrophe, of difference, and of growth. Through Philburt’s journey, he learns how to embrace difference, recognizing not only that “most of us will tolerate a condition we are suffering until we understand it can be otherwise”, but also that what makes us unique may be what makes us strong.
“It’s a mistake to believe that the small things surrounding you do not matter a whit, and a bigger mistake to believe that if you withdraw yourself from the world then the world will go on as if you’ve never been; every action every person takes has meaning, reverberation and consequence, whether or not they understand it at the time those actions are taken.”
Philbert, along with the reader, is urged to consider the impact of small lives and small actions. I expect Clio Gray’s action, and the lives she has created in “The Anatomist’s Dream”, to cause ripples in the literary world for years to come.