Fiction – hardcover; Canongate; 502 pages; 2008. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.
The Gargoyle, by first-time novelist Andrew Davidson, defies categorisation, because how do you categorise a book that melds a host of genres into one giant tome? Judging by the title and the pages edged in black, I expected a Gothic horror story. But what I got was a a modern fairytale colliding with a medieval romance and a boy’s own adventure story. Think Chuck Palahniuk meets Joanne Harris and throw in a dash of Walter Macken for good measure — and even then you still wouldn’t get close to encapsulating the essence of this strange but decidedly captivating novel.
If I were challenged to reduce the plot into one sentence, I’d say this: it’s about a drug-addled pornographer who suffers horrendous third — and fourth — degree burns in a road accident, and while in hospital, recovering from his injuries, he meets a psychiatric-patient-come-sculptor-of-gargoyles who claims she was his former lover in medieval Germany (when she was a pregnant nun-on-the-run and he was a mercenary) and takes him home to live with her. Imagine pitching that one to the publisher!
The first third of the book is a curious, beguiling and slightly ghoulish read, as the unnamed narrator contrasts his current existence as a hideously disfigured man dealing with reconstructive surgery and burn treatments with that of his former life as an incredibly vain “sex god”:
I was taller before the accident. The fire contracted me like beef jerky during the curing process. I had once been as lean and adorable as a third-century Greek boy, with buttocks ripe like the plump half-melons for which Japanese businessman will pay a small fortune. My skin was as soft and clean as undisturbed yogurt, my stomach was divided into symmetrical pads, and my arms were sleekly muscular. But it was my face that was my coat-of-arms. I had cheekbones that would have been at home in Verlaine’s wet dreams.
Did I mention that the author has a certain over-the-top way with words — or has a tendency towards “extremely silly writing” as one slightly unkind reviewer in The Independent described it? Well, now might be the time to raise Davidson’s occasional tendency to write florid, cloying prose. Although I found the style quite engaging and witty, reminiscent of old fashioned fairy tales, that same reviewer in The Independent claimed it occasionally wavered into the same territory as the Mills & Boon Desire range. I don’t exactly agree, but I do know what he means.
That aside, the latter two-thirds of the book follows our narrator’s new life living with the psychiatric patient who “adopts” him. Her name is Marianne Engel, a mysterious woman who can talk almost every language under the sun and claims to be 700 years old. In between manic spurts of sculpting gargoyles from lumps of stone, she tells stories of her distant past as a scribe and medieval nun in the famed monastery of Engelthal and how the pair first met and fell in love.
Interspersed with her own story, Marianne also tells other stories about love outlasting death in countries as diverse as Iceland, Italy and Japan, so that The Gargoyle ends up becoming a multi-layered narrative that jumps between past and present. All the while our narrator is never quite sure whether to believe anything that Marianne tells him, because surely she’s just a crazy woman who has lost her marbles, or is she?
But over time he comes to realise the truth of a whole bevy of clichés: that beauty is only skin deep, that there’s more to love than sex, that money does not buy happiness…
All this probably sounds rather trite, but there’s something about The Gargoyle which makes it feel like you’re in the presence of a master storyteller, someone who knows his Dantes from his Eckharts. In other words, it’s not as patronising as you might expect. And, in any case, we must be careful not to confuse the narrator’s occasionally arrogant voice with that of the author’s.
All in all, The Gargoyle is a truly entertaining rainy-day kind of read filled with quirky but wholly believable characters and a heart-hammering good plot. If it hasn’t got a cult following already, I’m sure we won’t have to wait very long before it does.