The Gargoyle is one of those books that will thoroughly
annoy some readers, while leading others practically panting to convince their
friends to read it. It has received an unusual amount of pre-publication press,
particularly for a first-time novelist, and it is ambitious in its content,
spanning centuries and locales. Then there is the range of subject matter:
correlations to Dante's Inferno, combined with tales of a medieval
scriptorium, mixed into the daily life of a modern day burn victim who was a
former porn king. Is it any surprise then, that this book already has plenty of
detractors as well as ardent fans?
The novel opens with a strong hook. The first person narrator, who is also the story's protagonist, describes his horrendous (and utterly stupid) car accident a crash caused by drugs and alcohol and a vision of burning arrows. After a brief anecdotal diversion into the history of the middle ages, readers are whisked with the narrator from the scene of the accident to the hospital burn unit where he will spend about a third of the book. While the narrator is treated for his many injuries, he contemplates an elaborate suicide, planning to end his life as soon as he is released from the hospital. But a strange woman arrives one day the narrator's first and only visitor who eventually changes his mind.
This woman, Marianne Engel, is portrayed as physically tempting, yet possibly mentally unstable. She acts as if she has known the narrator for years and even lifetimes at their first meeting. She tells elaborate and subtly linked love stories. She carves grotesques and gargoyles which are sold to the rich. She speaks multiple languages and translates ancient texts. She brings ridiculous feasts of international delicacies to the hospital and dotes on a dog named after a Greek pastry. It is through Marianne that the novel's narrator finds genuine love, a plot piece that Davidson does nothing to conceal, since the story's suspense is found elsewhere.
From the opening pages, author Andrew Davidson has no qualms about offering his readers graphic detail. The Gargoyle contains numerous stomach-turning descriptions of the protagonist's agony during his recovery, as well as frank discussion about the world of pornography. Even Davidson's descriptions of Marianne Engel's artistic gargoyle-carving frenzies can disconcert. This tendency toward the gross may dissuade some readers, but most will recognize Davidson's intentional use of grotesque realism to unify his fantasy. In this book, as in life, the line between beautiful and disgusting is often blurred.
The Gargoyle is, above all, entertaining. Davidson's work of seven years is the kind of pleasure reading that is hard to find: fantasy and suspense combined with intelligent research and strong writing. The pace slows a bit too much during some of Marianne's narrative diversions but, on the whole, the novel is a successful page turner. The Gargoyle is sometimes raw, sometimes delicately detailed. It offers a modern and historic love story that, though predictable, cannot be called conventional and a rogue narrator that manages to win over the reader despite his bad behavior.
This review was originally published in August 2008, and has been updated for the August 2009 paperback release. Click here to go to this issue.
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