The Anatomist's Dream
Someone is after Philbert's head - quite literally - as he travels Europe with Maulwerf's Fair of Wonders, and gets caught up in the violent upheavals that lead to the revolutions of 1848.
Nominated for the 2015 Man Booker and Longlisted for the 2016 Bailey's Prize for fiction, Gray's book is a tour de force that will introduce you to an astonishing cast of characters and places.
And then in came the Carnival, flying and barking over the bridge into the fields beyond the river, flattening the celandine and corn-grasses, outshining them with its painted carts, colourful stalls and tents, the weird-looking people who peppered and swung here and there amongst its makeshift ginnels. Philbert and Kroonk sat on the opposite riverbank dangling their toes in the cool water, fascinated by the sights, awed by the strange sounds, the smells of donkey dung and people and sawdust drifting through the air, the roars of unknown animals; the people of Staßburg bustling and jostling over the bridge, children laughing and flinging themselves into the river, swimming to the other side, hauling themselves out dripping, ready to go at it once again. The holler and hubbub rose in volume as people thronged the tents and stalls, their voices made louder by wonderment and drink. The smell of frying potatoes and meat blistering on braziers filled the evening air, drawing in every last citizen who had a single coin to spare.
Frau Kranz didn’t have even that, so Philbert could only wander outside but never got in to see the shows; he read the signs that shouted with their large lettering of the Extraordinary Feats and Freaks of Nature hidden inside the tents: the Fishman, the Fattest Woman in All the World, the Smallest-Ever Girl. It didn’t matter to Philbert; enough just to be a part of something so exotic, threading his way amongst the stalls, seeing all the things the pedlars had brought to sell – all colours of silks and wools and linens, tooled leather boots, gloves and leggings, laces, fancy buttons and buckles, bowls and cups of strange shapes and bright colours, painted clogs, an artisan selling silhouettes of anyone who paid their money over; a man selling potions and phials of strange coloured liquids, jars of leeches which sucked their flat bellies against the glass. There was everything to see, smell and hear, as if every good thing in life had come to Staßburg, shouting out to all who could to come and get it. Philbert and Kroonk sat and watched from their side of the river, gladdened by the animation across the water, warmed by it, happy to dip their toes and trotters into the water, satisfied to have the privilege to witness something so marvellous.
And then that girl came by, pin thin, legs like a cricket, same height as Philbert but with a face that was pinched and beaked and looked much older than her body, her features bright and without care.
‘Do you mind?’ said she, setting herself down beside Philbert, her voice sharp as shards of glass. She kicked off her small shoes, once red, now slightly tattered and flaked over with mud, and wriggled her minuscule toes like hatching minnows in the water. Philbert couldn’t speak, went red as Kroonk, and apparently had something stuck in his throat, though the girl didn’t seem to notice.
‘Mmmm!’ she breathed and leant back her head, stretched out her arms to the ground behind her. ‘This is wonderful!’
Kroonk leant closer, shivering slightly against Philbert’s side.
‘Lovely pig,’ she ventured after a while, and stroked Kroonk behind the ears.
‘Kroonk, kroonk,’ purred Kroonk as she swapped her allegiance and the girl smiled, Philbert finally opening his mouth and finding words coming out, asking the girl her name.
‘Puppelita,’ she answered brightly, ‘Lita to my friends, and you can call me Lita.’
‘I’m Philbert,’ Philbert said, emboldened, ‘but mostly I’m called Little Maus.’
Lita was amused by the name and giggled, and Philbert correspondingly blushed. And then Lita did what nobody else had ever done, at least not that Philbert ever remembered, and put out her tiny hand and stroked his taupe.
‘Little Maus,’ she said. ‘I like your little maus,’ and then she twisted his taupe’s soft tuft of hair around her fingers, Philbert so astounded he could only look hard at the water, concentrating on making splashing noises with his feet. Not even Frau Kranz touched his head, and no more did Philbert if he could avoid it. Little Lita was unaware of the boy’s ambivalence and sighed again.
‘How lovely it must be to dangle your toes in the river all day long,’ she said, Philbert once again struck dumb, leaving her to carry on the conversation by herself, which she did. ‘Will you be here tomorrow?’ she asked, Philbert nodding mutely, trying to smile, Kroonk kroonking so Lita laughed again, picked up her shoes, and headed back to the Fair.
That moment was forever fixed in Philbert’s memory as if caught in amber, and no matter what else was sent to fill his head, no matter what else would be done to him and his taupe over the years, it remained like an anchor, a starting post, around which the rest of his life would circle for ever more: Lita’s fingers against his taupe, Lita’s fingers in his hair. He would feel them always, just as then, and later would come to realise this was the single point in time when something inside his head switched itself on and began to blink open its eyes; began to take in all that was going on around him.