[Old blog rerun] Review: The Gargoyle

I found a way to recover part of my old blog content, so I decided to rerun some posts from that, mainly reviews of books I liked. The following review was first published in May 2009. (All tagging is new, and I’m afraid I don’t have any means of saving the old blog comments.)

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The book: The Gargoyle by Andrew Davidson

The edition: Canongate hardback edition, received through BookCrossing (thanks to soffitta1). It looks dark and grim, and only three-quarters through the book did I realize that the pages were black-edged to look as if the book had been (almost) burnt – a nice touch, actually, when you get the whole meaning of it.

The story: right at the beginning, the narrator (whose name we are never to learn) is into a car accident which results in a fire, and he suffers major burns. When he awakens into an hospital burn ward, his beautiful body (which was his pride in earlier life, and which had allowed his career as a porn actor) is no more. He has no family left and his friends soon abandon him. He is now a monster and his life is over, he wishes he had died in the accident. But this is only the beginning of another life: one day Marianne Engel, a patient from the psychiatric unit, enters his room and into his life. She claims they have known each other for 700 years and they have been lovers in medieval Germany. And while the narrator is clearly unconvinced, she charms him with her love, generosity, and above all with her storytelling, alternating parts of their story and other love stories along the months they spend together. By and by, the narrator abandons his cynical self (and his suicidal thoughts) and learns true friendship and love.

The first sentence:

Accidents ambush the unsuspecting, often violently, just like love.

The last sentence:

It is moving through time, coming to me in every language of the world, and it sounds like pure love.

My thoughts: when I ordered this book through BC, I had only read this synopsis, plus I knew it would count for the 2nd Canadian Challenge. While I was waiting, I read another review which pointed out that the main character was a porn actor and that there was a lot of awful description of the burns he goes through (true and true), and I was scared off.
Still, I opened it when it arrived and gave it a try… and after just a few pages I was plunged in the story and didn’t want to let go. Davidson is that good a storyteller: even while reading the goriest details, you just want to keep reading. And the story, wow: while the plot would not seem much in a summary, it actually is a thickly woven fabric of love and death, friendship and sorrow.
And once more, this book confirms what I have learnt about Canadian authors: they don’t want to give you a defined version, but rather to let you choose your own reading of the story. In this case, the narrator claims to believe that Marianne’s story is nothing more than a schizophrenic’s illusion. And yet one cannot but wonder, where did her abilities (not to mention her books) come from? The narrator himself, for all his scepticism, does not stop her from doing what she thinks is right.
Rating: 4/5

What I liked most: one life is not enough, and the author knows it. This book encompasses so many different stories, because as time goes by, Marianne Engel tells the narrator not only “their own story,” set in Medieval Germany, but a lot of other stories of love and loss, set in Italy, France, Japan, Iceland, England… She is a new Sheherazade, but her goal is not to save her own life, but that of the man she loves.

What I liked least: ok, there is just one thing that bothers me. Several times, Marianne offers the narrator a huge meal, and each time there is an endless list of thigs to eat, running over one page. It felt like the author was trying to push the book longer – and he knew it. Here’s what he wrote:

…potatoes, sweet potatoes, sweeter potatoes, sweetest potatoes, cabbage, carrots, parsnips, squash, pumpkin, basmati, white rice, brown rice, wild rice, tame rice, antipasto, stuffing, assorted breads, bagels, buns, cheese scones, green salad, Caesar salad, bean salad, pasta salad, jelliedsalad, whipped-cream-and-apple salad, spaghetti, fettuccini, macaroni, rigatoni, cannelloni, tortellini, guglielmo marconi (just checking to see if you’re still reading), bananas, apples, oranges…

One nice character:

An old man came to talk to me with such a large grin on his face that it was a shock when he mentioned that his wife of sixty years had recently died. When I told him I was sorry to hear it, he shook his head and clasped his hand on my shoulder. “Don’t be wasting your sympathy on me, kid. I did pretty damn well, I’ll tell you what. You snag a woman like that, you don’t ask what you did to deserve it. You just hope she never wises up and changes her mind.”

The best scene: probably, the one in which the narrator meets Marianne Engel for the first time:

She appeared in the burn ward door dressed in a light green hospital gown, with those unsolvable eyes and that riotously entangled hair, and I waited for the gasp that inevitably came whenever someone saw me for the first time. I waited for her to cover her mouth with her hand, in shock and dismay. She disappointed me by only smiling.
“You’ve been burned. Again.”
Generally I make it a rule not to respond to bizarre proclamations by strangers, but, honestly, in this case my silence was because I didn’t want her to hear my broken toilet of a voice. My throat was healing, but my ear (the one that still worked) was not yet used to the corrupted quality. I wanted her to know only the voice I had had before, the one that could talk a woman into bed.
In the face of my silence, she spoke again. “This is the third time you’ve been burned.”
I steeled my courage and corrected her. “Once.”
A look of confusion crossed her face. “Maybe you are not you.”
She moved towards my bed, her eyes never breaking contact with mine, and drew shut the thick plastic curtains around us so that our privacy was assured. She leaned in, within inches of my face, studying me. Nobody had ever looked at me like this, not before the burn and certainly not since. Her eyes, dancing between the blue and the green, had dark bags underneath them, as though she had not slept in weeks. When her lips were almost touching mine, she wispered a word. “Engelthal.”
[…]
She took a step back. “You don’t remember.”
“No.” Whatever she thought I should be remembering, clearly I was not.
“That will make it more interesting.”

Read this if: definitely read this if you love strange, lush words (cascadingly, vernacular, mechaspider, arrowhead, unwholeness, daimyo, surcot…). Also, read this if you are keen on historical fiction but are looking for something slightly different, but still in fashion. Read this if you liked People of the Book, or Mistress (but without the Indian atmosphere).

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2 comments on “[Old blog rerun] Review: The Gargoyle

  1. I’ve been wanting to read this for a long time now. I should move it up on my wish list. I have People of the Book on that list, too.

  2. I can highly recommend both. They are among the best books I read in the past few years, together with The Time Traveler’s Wife. Do move them up the list! 😉

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