"The Corpse Reader" Book Review
Written by Antonio Garrido
2013, 494 pages, Fiction
Released on May 28th, 2013
Epic is not a word I like to throw around. In fact, I don't use it in a review unless a novel extends both beyond usual length and scope, not just one of the two. Antonio Garrido's The Corpse Reader deserves to be called epic. It also deserves a space on the list of great adventure novels right next to Jerzy Kosinki's The Painted Bird and Mark Twain's The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.
Cí Song is a young, promising scholar and budding forensic investigator, but when his grandfather dies, he begrudgingly gives up his studies to help his family. Living with a saddened father, abusive older brother, and sick younger sister might not be the best situation, but Cí's life soon takes a turn for the worse when a series of tragedies strike. After both his parents die and his brother is convicted of murder, Cí is left alone, dishonored, homeless, with a sister to take care of, and with no place to go. After a long, perilous journey to the city of Lin'an and running from the authorities , Cí accepts work as a gravedigger, a job that allows him to sharpen his corpse-reading skills. Soon he can deduce whether a person killed himself or was murdered and how it happened. These skills earn him notoriety and even allow him to go back to school after the death of his sister. Although returning to academia was one of his dreams, things never stay the same for long in Cí's life and he finds himself working for the Emperor, trying to find the man responsible for a series of mutilations and deaths at the Imperial Court. The gruesome investigation sends Cí on a treacherous expedition through the highest and lowest places in the city and will keep the past ever present as old loyalties and enemies complicate the investigation. Ultimately, even the life of the Emperor will depend on Cí's examinations and his ability to find the truth.
The Corpse Reader is the kind of novel that grabs you quickly and never lets go. That's no easy task considering it comes in at almost 500 pages. Garrido took Song Cí, considered the founding father of CSI-style forensic science, and built a rich and very engaging narrative around him. The prose effectively pushes the story forward, the historical aspect is never boring, and the long hours of painstaking research that went into the novel are almost tangible every time the story deals with a body or crime. This last aspect of the novel makes it a strange but amazing hybrid: a thriller with enough high-quality writing to appeal to anyone but containing some fantastic gore that will be a treat for fans of horror. When Garrido gets into dark, messy, smelly things, The Corpse Reader shines. Here's a taste:
"Undaunted, he scanned the body of what appeared to have once been a woman but now looked more like a partially devoured animal. The tender flesh had been pitilessly defiled, the head severed completely, and bits and stumps of trachea and esophagus hung from the neck like pig's entrails. The feet had both been cut off at the ankles. Two grievous wounds stood out among the many on the torso: The first, above the right breast, was a deep, messy cavity that looked as though some beast had sunk its maw in and tried to eat out the lungs. The second was even more atrocious: a triangular incision straight across the navel and then down both sides over the groin that left only a bloody gap. The entire pubic area had been removed in some strange ritual. They were informed that the missing parts of the body, including the head, were yet to be found."
The Corpse Reader received the Zaragoza International Prize for best historical novel published in Spain and the novel's merits are obvious after the first two chapters. The plot manages to keep readers turning pages, tension is always sustained, and luck, which is more of a main character than an element of the story, is a concept that comes and goes, a strange and mischievous ghost that rules over Cí's life with a few gentle kisses and many vicious kicks to the head.
Although The Corpse Reader is set during the thirteenth-century Tsong Dynasty, the way Garrido writes about everyday actions, academia, corruption, sex, and death makes the narrative both appealing and very accessible. Some novels actually deserve awards, and this one is one of them. Forget genres and get your hands on this one simply because it's packed with top-notch storytelling.