The Gargoyle by Andrew Davidson, 2008, 465 pages
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.
After a terrible accident leaves him burnt beyond recognition, the unnamed narrator of The Gargoyle begins to receive an odd visitor in the hospital where he is recovering. Her name is Marianne Engel, and she seems to, at the beginning, suffer from delusions and other mental instabilities which are narrator is fascinated by and tries to find out all of the information as possible on mental illnesses. Before long, Marianne is visiting frequently, spinning intricate tales to the fascinated narrator. Her stories involve landowners, gifted artists, outcast orphans; all ill-fated lovers, all with stunningly touching stories. One story though, seems more puzzling than most. Marianne reveals the story of the past. It is the story of the love between the burnt man and Marianne herself, lovers long ago in Medieval Germany. As he begins to heal, the narrator becomes more involved in the stories of the strange woman, not knowing whether to believe in her mental instability, or in the impossible story she tells.
I was completely spellbound from the beginning of this book. The atmosphere was dark and the author's handling of the plot was brilliant. The story pulled me in and never let up until the end. The graphic depictions of the narrator's severe burns and subsequent treatment was a little graphic, but it was extremely well researched and related with an uncommon elegance as to be informative and interesting, as well as shocking and horrific. Though serious in nature, the book also had moments of humour and exceptional moments of insight. The main story was intertwined among other smaller stories, with particular focus on the story of fourteenth century Germany. Each story in the narrative grew in focus and detail and all were extremely captivating.
The narrator, who remains unnamed throughout the book, was a bit cantankerous and cynical, yet I had no problems relating to him or finding sympathy for his character. The talent of the author in his ability to make an unlovable character moving and sympathetic was impressive. I rooted for him to find his way and learn to accept his misfortune and how this accident may have well been the best thing that ever happened to him. His eventual bravery in the face of overwhelming obstacles was a heartening change from the self-pity and suicidal despair that first enveloped him. I could see the narrator changing with every story that Marianne Engel told. It was a tremendous feat to witness. Marianne was an alluring and compassionate character who brought open mindedness and hope to the narrator. Her certainty and determination were admirable, and the passion with which she drove herself was both frightening and formidable. It was interesting to see the two of them react to each other's differences, and to watch their growing attachment unfold.
This story will appeal to a wide audience, but the vivid detail of the accident and burn may be off-putting to some. I feel that the story was actually enhanced by this level of detail. It was extremely believable and accurate, and it heightened the story's impact and made me understand the character's situation all the more readily and believably. The information regarding mental illness was also authentic and informative. As well as advancing the plot, it provided a wealth of character description and enhancement that would have been laborious done any other way. The story was as compelling as the style in which it was written. This book had no easy answers. The subject matter was difficult, but ultimately rewarding and thought provoking.
This is a book that I can see reading over and over again, and taking away something different each time. I was amazed to find out that this is Davidson's first novel. As a writer, he is very impressive.
I would highly recommend this book.
Rating 5 out of 5