Sunday, July 19, 2009

Not your everyday love story

I treat novels based on love stories with skepticism. I don't think that the printed word can do justice to what love encompasses. With the few romantic novels that I've read, I mostly end up laughing at the cheesy scenarios. But a love story between a horribly disfigured porn actor and a possibly schizophrenic woman who sculpts gargoyles for a living? Sold! Give me two copies!

Reading Andrew Davidson's debut novel, The Gargoyle, over the weekend was a pleasant experience. The novel starts with an accident. The narrator, a "successful" player in the porn industry, crashes his car while drunk, causing his body to become burned and disfigured in the process. Davidson's description of the narrator's recuperation in the hospital leaves nothing to the imagination.
So much of my skin was damaged that removing the putrefying tissue meant more or less scrubbing away everything. My blood squirted up onto Dr. Edwards, leaving streams of red across of her gowned chest, as she used a razorlike apparatus to take the dermis off my body, not unlike the way a vegetable peeler removes the skin from food.
It is in this hospital where Marianne Engel pays him a visit. Marianne, a sculptress of grotesques, tells him that they've been lovers in the past, all the way to early 14th century Germany. Marianne visits him often, telling him stories of lovers in feudal Japan, Iceland during the time of the Vikings, Italy, and England. These little stories within the main storyline are gems in themselves. Often, you may ask yourself where Davidson is going with all these. You'll be rewarded in the final pages of the novel though, where everything falls into place.

Eventually, Marianne details the circumstances when she met the narrator in 14th century Germany. During that time, Marianne tells him she was a nun, one who was assigned to the monastery's scriptorium translating books into Italian. What she recounts thereafter would provide the romantic element of the novel. There are so many things going on in the novel and yet you admire how the author manages to keep his plot tight. Davidson switches between two time frames throughout the novel's more than 450 pages and keeps adding layer upon layer in his narrative.

One could view the novel as an homage to Dante's Inferno. In the novel's latter chapter, the narrator travels to the three hells and meets characters Dante himself wrote about. Another concept that Davidson inserts into his story is the importance of books throughout history. He never fails to point out that books, during the earlier times, takes much time and effort to produce, often requiring the work of talented artisans and scribes. Davidson, however, still resorts to certain cliches. As expected, he writes how the once-handsome narrator who was insensitive has a sort of epiphany now that his appearance can be compared to a grotesque.
What an unexpected reversal of fate: only after my skin was burned away did I finally become able to feel. Only after I was born into physical repulsiveness did I come to glimpse the possibilities of the heart: I accepted this atrocious fate and abominable body because they were forcing me to overcome the limitations of who I am, while my previous body allowed me to hide them.
This is a bit condescending to the reader, as you simply know from the start how the narrator's character will develop. Also, Davidson's writing becomes too flowery sometimes.
With a single sweep of his wings, Michael took flight again, twisting like an immediate tornado that sprang up from the ground. Behind him trailed the colors that he had brought, sucking upwards to disappear in his wake. The too-green of the grass was replaced once again with the dull gray of mud. The health of the trees was leached out. [...] Where Michael disappeared, the last of the colors followed him through a tiny hole in Hell's awning.
And because The Gargoyle is basically a love story, be prepared for lines such as these:
"Any man who believes he can describe love," I answerd, "understands nothing about it."
"Love is an action you must repeat ceaselessly."
Nevertheless, if you look past these, I recommend The Gargoyle to readers who are looking for an unconventional love story. None of the main characters are likable. At the novel's start, you feel that the narrator had his misfortune coming for him. Marianne Engel appears like an angel at the beginning, but toward the end, she becomes enigmatic. You keep asking questions to yourself whether to believe her stories or not. What works in the novel is their love story. It's something I've never encountered before: it's tragic but ultimately redemptive.

Read this book if:
  1. You like stories within stories.
  2. You've had enough of good-looking characters in romantic novels.
  3. You think gargoyles are beautiful.


Stepford Mum said...

I loved this book! One of my best new reads of the year so far :)

Peter S. said...

Hello, Stepford Mum! It is a very interesting read.

Anonymous said...

I read this last year after hearing all the hype and thought it was an orginal. I liked it, but didn't love it. Your review was great (of course I agree with most of what you said!).

Diane said...

I really loved this book. It was very different. Great review.

Anna said...

I bought this one a while ago, but haven't read it yet. After reading your review, I want to start it right away. Too bad I loaned it to a friend. LOL

Diary of an Eccentric

Charlie said...

"Sold! Give me two copies!"

In addition to a good review, I like your sense of humor.

Peter S. said...

@Stacy and Diane: Thanks!

@Anna: The novel is really very different. When you read it, I'd love to check out what you think about it.

@Charlie: Thanks! You just don't encounter a love story involving those two characters every day.

Anonymous said...

@Peter: Thanks for the review, I've been wanting to get this book.

Philip O'Mara said...

Nice book.

It’s time to read a great new romantic comedy, entitled Classes Apart.
This is an adult sporting comedy that follows the fortunes of Paul Marriot, the secretary of the Barnstorm Village Sunday soccer team and coach of a school cricket team in Yorkshire, England. The story describes the remarkable camaraderie between the players and supporters of this little club and their desire to achieve success. The team had previously been known more for its antics off the field, rather than their performances on it.

During his time at the club he meets and becomes involved with Emma Potter, who is the sister of James Potter, a major player for their bitter rivals Moortown Inn. Thus, begins an entangled web of romance and conflict. He also begins working at Derry High School, a school with a poor reputation of academic success, where he becomes coach of the school cricket team. Here he develops an amazing relationship with the children and they embark on an epic journey.

Peter S. said...

Hi Blooey! You're welcome!

Helen said...

Oh my gosh! I love The Gargoyle. I listened to the audio version. Such a wonderful book!

Peter S. said...

Hi Helen! I can just imagine how the audiobook would feel like. The book is very atmospheric.