Bella's Bookshelf Review - The Anatomy of Edouard Beaupré

Reviewed by: Steph van der Meulen

If I were in any profession that worked with deceased people, I know I'd be thinking constantly of who th people were in life. Whad did they think about every day, what were their dreams, their sadnesses, their passions, their last thoughts? Whom did they love, who loved them? What did they do, where did they go? How did they navigate life?

So does the doctor from Montreal wonder, who in 1951 is working to solve the mystery of why the giant Edouard Beaupré, who stood over eight feet tall (and was still growing) when he died in 1904 in his early twenties, is now shrinking in death in spite of the fact that his tissues had already been dried an soaked in formaldehyde years before. 

The more he spends time with Beaupré's enigmatic body, the more the doctor finds himself wondering about and imagining who the giant might have been, and what his life was like.

An ironically small, compact book, The Anatomy of Edouard Beaupré is reflected in the 206 pages (for the number of bones in the body) and divided into chapters named for body parts (liver, nose, fists, etc.). It's a clever, self-award book -- a contradictory one, in a way, since the title and format focus on the giant's physique, as did so many others before this, while the contents tell us what's truly important -- and packaged rather like a precoius gift, which, really, it is: a tribute to the extraordinary man who once lived, and a tender treatment, finally, of the giant who was such a fascinating curiosity he was constantly exploited.

As the doctor wondered about Beaupré's life, so too, obviously, did York, whose research is incorporated into an otherwise fictional account of young Edouard's childhood. He dreams of becoming a cowpoke but his size eventually prevents him from being able to ride the horses. Instead, he can carry them. His strength and unusual size take him to cities where he appears instead as a circus performer and occasional strongman who wrestles others.

While the story is a tender imagining, the giant sympathetically and kindly portrayed (as facts confirm), more than anything, for me it was almost more sad, even rather depressing, than beautiful. Beaupré, while warm and handsome and perfectly proportioned, had the misfortune of being freakishly tall and thus unable to have a normal life. Where ideally a person's height or any sort of difference would nevertheless be of lesser importance than their personality and heart, "normals" have either an aversion to or detached fascination with unusual people. Particularly in the 1800s and 1900s, the only way for unusual people to eke out a living was to be on display in a circus. One gets the sense that this is a tedious and demeaning occupation, often fraught with unpleasantries and unfair treatment.

The sense of Beaupré's lack of belonging was so strong my heart was heavy while I read. He was take advantage of by managers. He was lonely and dreamed of being home. And he was sickly, which led ultimately to his untimely death but also to his failure in being able to impressively or successfully demonstrate his strength and endurance. And in death, because his father was unable to bring him home, his body was crudely displayed in shop windows for a time and then rather mercilessly opened and reopened, explored by curious and learning minds.

At the same time, York's reimagining of country life, of Edouard's mother's experience, of the landscape, and also of city life during a fertile time of invention, is vivid. And when Edouard attends his sister's wedding, we get a lovely glimpse of his sense of humour and desire to be happy as he dances home after miserably failed attempts to dance with women inside. York's prose is spare and simply constructed, and her details evocative. I've marked several sentences I liked, this one in particular: "Words nipped his ears like bedlice."

What I loved most about this book was that it reflected a kind of giving back: after his difficult, though brief, life, after Edouard's unfulfilled desires, the indignities and misunderstandings, the focus on his body rather than his mind, heart, and soul, after the unkind jokes and medical probing -- after all that, York has presented us with who Beaupré was and may have been aside from his size. It's as though she's righted wrongs, or at the very least offered a different (more important) way of seeing.

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