“The Surgeon’s Mate” is a genre-bending book in the vein of…well, I’m not sure, actually, but the closest example I can come up are Peter Hoeg’s books like “Borderliners” or “The History of Danish Dreams.” Like them, “The Surgeon’s Mate” combines history, fiction, autobiography, and a bizarre dash of surrealism and magic. Taken together, the mixture creates a rich and thought-provoking stew that is well worth sampling.
The book alternates between the narratives of Aiden Clark, illustrator and writer in contemporary America, and Frederick, a surgeon’s mate and serial killer in Victorian London. Aiden experiences seizures that cause him to hallucinate that he is Frederick, although he doesn’t realize what is happening, or that he is actually inhabiting Frederick’s mind, until near the end of the novel. The tension created by the alternating points of view, and the opposing life trajectories of the two characters–Aiden starts off as an alcoholic, but then sobers up, saving his career and his marriage, while Frederick sinks further and further into depravity–builds and builds to a climax that plunges the characters into a confrontation in Jack the Ripper’s London.
The prose is spare but evocative, whether depicting Aiden’s largely idyllic Tennessee childhood or Frederick’s grim and grimy existence in 19th-century London. Readers should note that there are explicit scenes of death and dismemberment–this is a story about a serial killer, after all!–but the main thrust of the work is Aiden’s struggles with his addiction and his pull towards the dark side of human nature. As someone who’s always enjoyed the macabre and who has made a living out of writing and illustrating horror fiction, he is both connected to and repelled by his alter ego Frederick, and is forced to explore his own interest in the dark and gory. Not the lightest of subject matters, but the clean prose style and the ultimately uplifting trajectory of Aiden’s own story make this a swift yet satisfying read.