A stash of bones, found underneath a South Carolina medical school, links together two stories, one from the Civil War and one from the present, in first-time novelist Guinn’s Southern gothic.
The Civil War story explains how the bones got there: Since the school is short on corpses, recently purchased slave Nemo Johnston is dispatched to “resurrect” bodies of recently deceased slaves for medical research. Nemo is a complex character, resigned to slavery though he’s clearly talented enough to be a surgeon. Yet he’s not entirely noble, as Nemo takes easily to the grisly job, even bringing back a body or two that he’s killed himself. He earns a financial success denied to most slaves, while being feared and despised by those in his community. Also new at the school, and also on the wrong side of history, is Sara Thacker, a midwife whose gender keeps her from training as a surgeon. In the present day, the bones of the slaves are discovered at the college, and the school panics over possible bad press and loss of donors when the history gets out. Jacob Thacker, a promising doctor who’s been demoted to public relations because of a former Xanax addiction, is enlisted to protect the college’s good name—but instead, he researches the archives and learns more of the details, including his own family connection.
Nemo’s story is ultimately more compelling than Jacob’s, but Guinn provides a lot of twists and an effectively ominous mood, thanks partly to some not-for-the-squeamish medical scenes.