This novel is exquisite!
It is one of those novels which leaves you at a loss for words – how can my prosaic prose do justice to it? – and simultaneously fired up to sing its praises!
Who are we? What creates our identity? Our self? Our sense of self? We live in a world that has now the capacity to really challenge and explore that question and the quotation from Sonnet 53 of Shakespeare which peppers this novel is incredibly pertinent and potent.
What is your substance, whereof are you made,
That millions of strange shadows on you tend?
Since everyone hath ever one, one shade,
And you, but one, can every shadow lend.
Describe Adonis, and the counterfeit
Is poorly imitated after you.
On Helen’s cheek all art of beauty set,
And you in Grecian tires are painted new.
Speak of the spring and foison of the year;
The one doth shadow of your beauty show,
The other as your bounty doth appear,
And you in every blessèd shape we know.
In all external grace you have some part,
But you like none, none you, for constant heart.Shakespeare, Sonnet 53
Interleaving two tales – perhaps three – perhaps more – the novel opens by exploring the apocryphal and iconic birth of the novel Frankenstein in 1816 on the rain drenched shore of Lake Geneva, narrated by Mary Shelley. It is written in the most beautiful, evocative, lyrical prose, never losing sight of the reality of the scene but conjuring it vividly.
Reality is water-soluble.
What we could see, the rocks, the shore, the trees, the boats on the lake, had lost their usual definition and blurred into the long grey of a week’s rain. Even the house, that we fancied was made of stone, wavered inside a heavy mist and through that mist, sometimes, a door or a window appeared like an image in a dream.
Every solid thing had dissolved into its watery equivalent.
These sections of the novel, rather than being about the conception of Frankenstein – is it possible to refer to Shelley’s waking dream without these metaphors of birth? – uses that setting to explore the relationship between Mary and Percy Shelley, surrounded in a gorgeously claustrophobic prison, by Byron and Polidori and Claire Claremont. And, oh, that relationship between the Shelleys is so wonderful! Physical, spiritual, impossible
My husband stood on the landing. I approached him, naked as Eve, and I saw the man of him stir beneath the apron of his shirt.
I was out walking, I said.
Naked? he said.
Yes, I said.
He put out his hand and touched my face.
And the image of Shelley that Mary Shelley had is so tender.
I glanced at Shelley, my Ariel, this free spirit, imagining himself imprisoned in a loom of words.
Solubility, the impermanence of the physical, dissolution run through the novel like a river, binding every part of it.
Because, as we slip into the second narrative we find Dr. Ry Shelley in an equally tender loving relationship with Frank Stein, befriending the tech giant Ron Lord and dogged by the journalist Polly D. The rather obvious and playful echoes in the names ushers in a different tone: the opening salvo in this narrative includes Claire welcoming Ry Shelley to the global Tec-X-Po on Robotics; Polly D’s emergency with intelligent vibrators and teledildonics; and Ron Lord’s monologue about his creation, the sexbot.
I have an emergency!
What kinda emergency?
The woman shuddered inside her leather and buckskin as she said, I have accidentally posted pictures of myself, mostly naked, except for two tassels, using the Intelligent Vibrator, on my Facebook page.
That wasn’t very intelligent, I said.
From this genuinely comedic start, we discover or uncover Frank Stein – in this incarnation, desperate to avoid being incarnate! The monster he imagines in an artificial intelligence, an uploaded post-human, trans-human.
Of course, says Victor, what I would prefer is to be able to upload myself, that is, upload my consciousness, to a substrate not made of meat.
And there is the heart, the soul, the mind of this fantastical beast of a novel: the desire to transcend our physical, meaty, aging, failing and limited bodies. Whether that be through the act of poetry and creativity as the Romantic poets in their rain soaked Italy aspire, whether it be through the Frankenstein’s visceral science to transcend death and reanimate the dead or from Frank Stein’s digitisation of the human.
Where is that liminal space between meat and soul, human and spirit? And why are some of us more clearly spirit than meat? Of Percy Shelley, Mary Shelley observes that
The light seemed to shine through him, spirit that he is.
And the extraordinary thing is that – like Shelley’s Frankenstein – this weightiest of weighty projects – this piercing of all it is to be human, to be – is so wonderfully readably enjoyable! The novel does read well simply as a gothic thriller: cliff hangers and revelations abound as we explore hidden subterranean tunnels and hidden laboratories populated by the macabre and grotesque.
Winterson’s ear for voices is exquisite and she does things with voice and dialogue that are exceptional and which I would struggle event to describe, let alone recreate. Her capacity for humour is delightful. When contemplating the size of the market for digital uploading, Ron comments
Ryan, you just said that 55 million people die every year?
We wouldn’t want them all back though, would we?
Author’s note: THIS IS THE MOST PROFOUND THING RON HAS EVER SAID.
which itself echoes a similarly cutting comment about Claire Claremont earlier.
I found this deliciously playful and genuinely funny. But very unsettling. And I mean that as a real compliment: what is the point of reading but to become unsettled? Note that it is an authorial note, not the narrator’s. Where does the line between author and character and narrator lie? The line between fact and fiction? Is it, like death, perhaps a process rather than an event? Winterson slips into the narrative a fact that I did not know before: there is a real Castle Frankenstein, apparently the home to an alleged seventeenth century alchemist and mad scientist Johann Conrad Dippel. Who is the madman, in the chapters set in Bedlam, claiming to be Victor Frankenstein and seeking audience with Mary Shelley?
And how poignant and painful are his first words to Mary Shelley? The creation looking at its creator and asking
And if there is one character in all of literature with an independent life, a character we all think we know, surely it is Frankenstein.
Finally, let’s turn to Winterson’s presentation of Ry Shelley – transgender and neither Ryan nor Mary despite Ron Lord’s clumsy and inept struggle and failure to understand – is sublime and authentic, more so that any other presentation of the trans community I have read. And, oddly, that is the second time I have written that in a review this week: Nostalgia Nalan in Elif Shafak’s 10 Minutes and 38 Seconds in this Strange World was well presented; Ry Shelley, for me, breathed. That same fact, that death is a process lasting perhaps ten minutes, was central to both these novels too… A strange coincidence.
As Ry says of himself,
I am liminal, cusping, in between, emerging, undecided, transitional, experimental, a start-up (or is it an upstart?) in my own life.
I am, however, saying this as a cis-male so I’d be very intrigued to learn what trans readers felt about it. Ry is clearly symbolic within the novel but for me that symbolism was married perfectly with an authentic, convincing and three-dimensional – and utterly compelling – character and narrative voice. His relationship with Frank Stein was beautiful and tender, just as the relationship between Mary and Percy Shelley was – albeit both were troubled and doomed.
It is not a story of being transgender, although Ry’s struggles with his identity, insecurity, sexual intercourse, drugs and abuse were utterly compelling. And, whilst generally at peace with himself, the novel does show very powerfully and graphically some of the physical abuse that the transgender community suffer – and why in our society that is often a silent suffering.
For me, this is the pinnacle of my reading in 2019 – and perhaps for a few years. That this did not win the Booker Prize is a travesty – or perhaps an indication of the power of the two books that did, neither of which I have read, to be fair.
It deserves as many plaudits and as much praise possible!
An extraordinary and sparkling novel.
Plot / Pace: ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐
Publisher: Jonathan Cape
Date: 28th May 2019