Review: The Gargoyle

Written by Andrew Davidson
Published by Doubleday, 2008, 468 pages
This review refers to an advance reading copy of the book

Just a short note about The Gargoyle. There’s not a great deal to say about the book that hasn’t already been said, and said again. Unless you’ve been buried in a coal mine for the last few months, or out mapping the migration of the yellow-headed parrot through Ecuador, by now you’ve heard all about Andrew Davidson’s best-selling debut novel.

Briefly, it’s the story of a nameless (unless I’m mistaken?) porn film maker who is badly burned in an auto accident. This happens in the first chapter, and the next hundred or so pages are mainly filled with pretty gruesome details about his hospital treatment and recovery. If Davidson were a less talented writer, most readers would probably give up somewhere around page 7 when the doctors are performing their first “escharotomy” – slicing through the main character’s charred skin with scalpels to give the swollen tissue room to expand.

But if you hang on, you get to the best part of the story. One day, a beautiful and mysterious sculptress of gargoyles appears suddenly at the burn victim’s bedside and begins to tell him tales of their lives as lovers in an earlier incarnation, hundreds of years ago. She insists her stories are true; and over the next months, she takes him into her home, nursing him back to health, and giving him more and more details about their former lives together. She tells him stories of other lovers, too. And reads Dante to him. And cooks him elaborate feasts. And takes him for midnight swims at the beach. All the while, madly sculpting more and more of her “grotesques” – until eventually their situations are reversed and our hero has to begin looking after his caretaker.

This is a first novel and, of course, it shows. It’s not fine literature, but it’s a darn good read. I took it to the beach this summer, and it kept me up late every night. The characters are engaging, and there’s quite a lot of humor for a book about such an appalling situation. It’s a really good love story – no, it’s several really good love stories. And it even has a bit of a literary mystery thrown in at the end. It’ll make a terrific movie – I wonder if Johnny Depp has read it.

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Review: The Aviary Gate

Written by Katie Hickman
Published by Bloomsbury, 2008, 341 pages

We come here as slaves, all of us: slaves of the Sultan. We give up everything, even our names. It is a strange fact – don’t you think? – that not one of us was born Ottoman, or even a Muslim. Not one of us. There is nothing to unite us except the fact that we have the honour to be the Sultan’s women. And do not forget this, . . . : there is no higher honour.” [p. 55]

 

I so very much did not want to like this book. Yes, I did request an advance reading copy from Bloomsbury. But I was guilty of doing something I hardly ever do – asking for a book I knew absolutely nothing about. I almost always do quite a lot of research on an author or any given book before I buy it or request a reading copy. Not this time, though. And from the reclining odalisque with the come-hither stare on the cover, to the jacket flap description of “a rare glimpse into the forbidden confines of the Sultan’s harem,” the whole package just screamed “bodice-ripper” and “not my kind of story.”

But guess what. You know that old adage about not judging a book by its cover? Well, it’s been proven true once again. Even though, the whole time I was reading The Aviary Gate, I kept telling myself I should not enjoy it – I did.

Can a Barbara Cartland marathon be far behind?

No, seriously, although it certainly has elements of the romance novel, The Aviary Gate is nothing like a Harlequin. It’s a thoroughly engrossing historical tale of murder and intrigue in the Sultan’s harem in 16th Century Constantinople, juxtaposed with the story of a present-day academic whose research brings the episode to light.

Based partly on fact, Hickman’s novel shifts back and forth between the story of Celia Lamprey, a sea captain’s daughter lost in a late-16th Century shipwreck and sold into slavery at the Sultan’s court, and that of Elizabeth Staveley, the Oxford researcher who becomes obsessed with finding out what actually happened to the young woman. Did she escape the Sultan’s harem and return to England? Was she rescued by diplomat Paul Pindar, the man she was engaged to at the time of the shipwreck? Did she live out her life as a Sultan’s concubine? Or was she somehow involved in the poisoning of the Sultan’s chief black eunuch and possibly imprisoned or even executed?

Well, I’m not going to give away the ending – I’ll just say it wasn’t really what I expected. But then the entire book was a pleasant surprise. And some of it was just, well, surprising. Like the descriptions of a 16th Century version of a bikini-wax session, and the mechanics of producing eunuchs to guard the Sultan’s harem (actually, I could have done without that last episode altogether).

The book does have its flaws. Some of the dialogue sounds a little too modern to be thoroughly believable Elizabethan speech: One of the characters agrees with another by remarking “I’ll say!” and another expresses his doubt about the success of a plan by arguing that “we’ll be dead meat.” And the current-day story frequently seems rather lackluster in comparison with the thrills and escapades of the Sultan’s palace. Perhaps the fact that Hickman’s earlier work was mostly nonfiction might have something to do with that.

One of the interesting things the novel points out is just how much power women could attain in the ancient harem system. There were, of course, the “powers behind the throne” – the Sultan’s mother, and chief wives and concubines. But for the other most-favored slaves, there was also the possibility of a marriage outside the court, to a rich and powerful nobleman or merchant. These women were highly sought after because of their ties to the royal circle.

The Aviary Gate is a fascinating combination of academic mystery, historical adventure, and thrilling love story. I can heartily recommend it as a romance novel for people who hate romance novels.

Review: Chatterton

Written by Peter Ackroyd
Published by Grove Press, 1988, 234 pp.
First published in Great Britain by Hamish Hamilton Ltd., 1987

In Peter Ackroyd’s Chatterton, Charles Wychwood, a young 20th century poet, becomes obsessed with discovering the true history of another poet, Thomas Chatterton who supposedly committed suicide in 1770 at the age of 18. In an antique shop, Wychwood discovers a painting he believes to be a depiction of Chatterton in later life – much older than the age at which he is supposed to have died. Charles’s interest in the painting leads him to a further discovery – a stash of Chatterton’s manuscripts and papers still in existence in Bristol.

The tale of Charles and how his fascination with Chatterton affects both his professional and private lives is the main story in the novel. But there are also flashbacks to Chatterton himself, and the story of his rise to fame as a teenaged poet who faked a whole body of poetry supposedly written by a medieval monk. Then there’s the story of the Victorian artist Henry Wallis who created a well-known painting showing Chatterton lying dead in an attic room. Wallis uses his friend, the poet George Meredith, as his model and is attracted to Meredith’s wife Mary. And there’s the elderly novelist Harriet Scrope, who employs Charles to help her write the memoirs she hopes will prevent her well-kept secrets from being revealed and ruining her reputation.

And all of these plots intertwine around the central core of Chatterton’s suicide, and weave back and forth between past and present, and fantasy and reality, using both fictional and real-life characters and incidents.

Admittedly, that’s an extremely abbreviated synopsis of a very intricate novel. Publisher’s Weekly called the book “inventive” and “larky,” and those are good descriptions. At first meeting, most of the characters appear eccentric to the point of lunacy. But gradually they come to seem almost too disturbingly real and familiar. I was particularly taken with the novelist Harriet Scrope and her friend, “the famous art critic” Sarah Tilt. It’s worth reading the whole book just to get glimpses of their exchanges and brief escapades.

Chatterton was a bestseller in England when it first appeared in 1987, and was short-listed for that year’s Man-Booker Prize. Even so, I had a little trouble finding a copy of it. Apparently it hasn’t achieved the lasting popularity of the author’s Hawksmoor. At least, not in the U.S. But it’s definitely worth seeking out.