An extraordinary debut novel of love that survives the fires of hell and transcends the boundaries of time
The narrator of The Gargoyle is a very contemporary cynic, physically beautiful and sexually adept, who dwells in the moral vacuum that is modern life. As the book opens, he is driving along a dark road when he is distracted by what seems to be a flight of arrows. He crashes into a ravine and suffers horrible burns over much of his body. As he recovers in a burn ward, undergoing the tortures of the damned, he awaits the day when he can leave the hospital and commit carefully planned suicide—for he is now a monster in appearance as well as in soul.
A beautiful and compelling, but clearly unhinged, sculptress of gargoyles by the name of Marianne Engel appears at the foot of his bed and insists that they were once lovers in medieval Germany. In her telling, he was a badly injured mercenary and she was a nun and scribe in the famed monastery of Engelthal who nursed him back to health. As she spins their tale in Scheherazade fashion and relates equally mesmerizing stories of deathless love in Japan, Iceland, Italy, and England, he finds himself drawn back to life—and, finally, in love. He is released into Marianne's care and takes up residence in her huge stone house. But all is not well. For one thing, the pull of his past sins becomes ever more powerful as the morphine he is prescribed becomes ever more addictive. For another, Marianne receives word from God that she has only twenty-seven sculptures left to complete—and her time on earth will be finished.
Already an international literary sensation, the Gargoyle is anInferno for our time. It will have you believing in the impossible.
I don't actually tend to take much notice of holidays, and that is even more true when it is a holiday that we don't actually celebrate here. It was therefore a bit of a surprise to find myself reading not one but two books that are perfect Halloween reads. The first is a short story collection called Many Bloody Returns featuring vampires and birthdays stories from lots of different writers, and the other was this book.
From the very early pages, it is clear that our main character is one that most people would not want to befriend. Ironically enough, prior to his accident he was, physically at least, someone that would be considered very attractive - young, wealthy, attractive. After a terrible childhood, he drifts into a world filled with pornography and drugs, until he is driven as opposed to drifting in this world. After his accident, his is no longer physically attractive because of his terrible scarring, an irony that is not lost on him or anyone else.
This isn't a book for the faint of heart. The first few pages are nothing but graphic, as our main character, who remains nameless throughout the whole novel, has a terrible car crash.
We meet him a few seconds before as he drives along a cliff top road, influenced by drugs and alcohol. We ride in the car as it rolls down the hillside, as the flames engulfs, as he is rescued and taken to hospital and as he realises the full extent of his terrible injuries. I started reading this book on the train, and I was actually wincing at some of the parts, particularly where he talked about what happened to one of his feet.
And yet despite the gruesomeness of the descriptions, the writing is multi layered with moments of macabre comedy, beautiful tenderness, and incredible depth. The writing is not perfect - there are moments when tenses slip - but it is definitely compelling.
When our burns victim meets Marianne Engel, he is caught up in the whirlwind of energy that she brings with her, almost manic at times. He does not know her, but she is insistent that they have known each other for hundreds of years and she proceeds throughout the rest of the book to tell him their story. She also tells other stories, of ultimate love stories set in Iceland, Japan and England through the years. The story she tells is completely fantastical, and whilst there is some evidence to suggest that people are right to question Marianne's mental stability, our main character finds himself becoming less suicidal, less emotionally restricted and more open to new friendships around him due to her influence.
This book has so many layers - it is definitely a love story, there are fantasy elements, particularly in the latter stages of the book, it is a historical essay on the production of books in medieval abbeys, and a tribute to Dante's Inferno with side trips into mysticism and other historical detail. In lesser hands this could have become tangled and we could have been left with an unsatisfactory mess. Luckily for the reader, Davidson is skilled, and instead we end up with an infinitely readable, complicated and beautiful novel. A strong love story bound in fascinating detail.
Love is an action you must repeat ceaselessly.
This is a very assured debut novel. I can't wait to see what Andrew Davidson comes up with next.
The Gargoyle is a difficult book to review and summarize. The plot crosses many genre lines and deals with many issues. That said, here is my attempt.
The novel begins with the narrator getting in a car accident after bingeing on liquor and cocaine. He has a bottle of bourbon between his legs at the time and him and his car go up in flames. He is burned over most of his body and is in a hospital burn unit for a very long time.
Marianne Engel, a famous sculptress of gargoyles, shows up on his unit one day and tells him that they were lovers in medieval Germany. She claims that he was a mercenary and that she was a scribe. He doesn’t really much faith in this claim, but is mesmerized by Marianne.
When he was ready to be released from the hospital he was still going to need continuous care. Normally he would have been sent to a rehab centre, however Marianne volunteers to take him into her home. She has the resources for him to get the care he needs.
This book is richly layered with many themes and symbolism. It is not a book to be read quickly, but rather slowly and contemplatively. One of the major themes is of redemption and there are many references to Dante’s Inferno in it.
This book is not for the faint of heart. The burns that the nameless narrator goes through and many other aspects are vividly outlined. Though I don’t normally like a book with much gore, it is needed in this book. It’s not there to purposely shock the reader, but to inform.
I really liked this book. It has a lot to keep the reader interested and is well researched and written. The stories that Marianne tells are very engaging and were my favorite part of the book.
I only have one complaint. Throughout the book the author refers to Marianne by her full name, Marianne Engel. Her entire name appears several times on the same page. Though this doesn’t ruin the book, it is a distraction, at least for me. I have no idea if this was intentional, though for what purpose I can’t fathom or if is was in need of better editing. That said, I did read an advance reading copy, so maybe in the final version published this was fixed. I sure hope so.
I highly recommend The Gargoyle and look forward to reading more from Andrew Davidson.
Thanks to Doubleday for sending an advance reading copy of this book!
Teddy's review originally posted August 20 2008.