Saturday, September 14, 2013

The Gargoyle by Andrew Davidson

A little more than a year ago, I read this review of The Gargoyle by Andrew Davidson on Vishy's Blog. The review made it sound like the most fascinating book and if not anything else, it is certainly that.

It is difficult to write a summary for a book that winds so many stories together, but I'll try. The book opens with the life-altering car crash of our narrator, once a hardcore porn-star and a junkie. He survives, but his body is almost irreparably burnt. While recovering in the burn ward of a hospital, alone and grotesque, the pain drives him to a point where the only relief is the idea of suicide. With the same suddenness with which the narrator describes his accident, he introduces us to the character central to his story: Marianne Engel, a beautiful apparent schizophrenic, a sculptress of gargoyles, who believes not only that she is seven hundred years old but that she's our narrator's true love. She insists that they were lovers in medieval Germany; he, a badly burnt mercenary; and she, a nun, who nursed him back to health. Tacky as it may sound, with little to do but suffer the extensive treatment for his injury, our narrator immerses himself into the tales of love and God that the strange Marianne tells him; intrigued by the accuracy and consistency of her delusions. Under the care of his physiotherapist, the cheerful Sayuri, and his doctor Nan Edwards, with the help of an unlikely friend, a shrink, and the increasingly mysterious Marianne Engel, our narrator's condition slowly improves. When he is released from the hospital, the narrator moves in with Marianne, and realizes for the first time the true extent of her mania.

"If a man says that God is wise, the man is lying because anything that is wise can become wiser. Anything that a man might say about God is incorrect, even calling Him by the name of God. The best a man can do is to remain silent, because any time he prates on about God, he is committing the sin of lying. The true master knows that if he had a God he could understand, he would never hold Him to be God."

Now let me just say I like the book. Looking back on the 200-something pages, I can say with certainty that I'm glad I read them. You'll find many reviews on Amazon, Goodreads or your favourite book-lovers' haunt that describe just how charming, intelligently crafted, poetic, hauntingly beautiful the book is. I am intrigued by Davidson's imagination. The historical life of Marianne, growing up as a scribe in the famed monastery of Engelthal, is a wonderful blend of languages, art and literature. The culinary delights that she prepares for the narrator in the present day are appropriately delightful. The tales Marianne narrates, of everyone from Vikings to proper Victorian ladies, are an added charm. As I said, I like the book; but I don't quite love it. Though it had everything it needed to be properly splendid, the book just never fully held my attention.

I get the appeal for the book. The setting, the eerie writing, the mysticism, the switching timelines are reminiscent of writers like Patrick Sueskind, Carlos Ruiz Zafon, A. S. Byatt. The narrator's oddly modern cynicism and abrupt sense of humour, the way the narrator talks, reminds me, for some reason, of China Mieville, though the content of this book rarely resembles his. The writing style, however, seems far too forced, like the author is mimicking his favourite writers; almost like a child who reads Enid Blyton writing about mean, horrid grown-ups and children who say things like, "Goodness me!" Apart from the stories Marianne tells, which are truly nice, there is little story-telling; only disconnected scenes strung together to form a brittle 'plot'. Few 'chapters', if they could be called that, are longer than a page. The theme of the book is, as is to be expected, redemption. But the part where the message of the book becomes most evident is rushed. Dante's Inferno, the circles of Hell are woven into the story, but even that story line remains, though imperceptibly, rough at the edges. While the author spends a long time working out an intricate history for all characters, their minds are superficial at best. The sudden change in the narrator and his view of the world, his abrupt lack of skepticism, the complete wiping away of the effects of his past, though brought on by a doubtlessly tragic incident, are sketchy at best. Marianne, who has so much potential, comes dangerously close to becoming an empty silhouette of a character; just a stereotype. Sayuri is an interesting character, her story adds a welcomed dash of bubbling humanity to the book, but even the ending the author presents her seems little more than a tying up of loose ends. The doctor is another stereotype I'd rather not dwell on. My favourite character is Jack Meredith, 'nuff said.

Despite the lengthy criticism, I do think the book is worth reading. It is certainly rather unique. It's not long, and though it sometimes loses momentum, if you like history, magical realism, dark fantasy, mythology, art, specifically grotesques, give The Gargoyle a chance.

I think the book fits The Historical Fiction Challenge better than it does the R.I.P. Challenge, though the latter is the one I originally read it 'for'. 

3 comments:

bibliophilica said...

Hello!
I'm glad to see someone post about this book for R.I.P. I read it several years ago, right before I started blogging, on the recommendation of a friend. I found it to be refreshingly different from my 'normal' reading and liked it a lot. I struggled less with the weaker writing than you did. I remember it also made me want to pick up and tackle Dante once and for all. I procrastinated, though, and still haven't done that. :-)
-Jay

Lynn said...

I also read this a number of years ago. I liked certain aspects of the story but I wouldn't say that I loved the book overall. Worth a read though like you said. If I remember correctly I seem to remember getting off to a sketchy start as I didn't really like the narrator.
Lynn :D

Priya said...

Jay - Ooh it has inspired me to give Dante a shot too, but I wouldn't dare just yet. Glad you stopped by!

Lynn - The narrator isn't really likable, I agree with you on that. Thanks for stopping by. :)

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