by Andrew Davidson
498 pages, Cannongate
Review by Marc Nash
I can’t remember why I bought this novel originally three years ago. I know I must have got influenced by some buzz around it at the time, but when it arrived and I saw the cover, it went straight to the bottom of my TBR pile and has stayed there until the interval between Amazon vouchers meant I finally turned to read it. It just didn’t seem to be my type of book and having read it, it isn’t, but not because of the book I imagined it was going to be.
A nameless male narrator is a coke-fueled porn actor and producer who stacks his car into a creek and suffers all over burns. In his long hospital stay as the medics try and rebuild him, or at least recoat him, a mysterious woman comes in to visit him and attend to his mental recovery with strange stories claiming they are not only star-crossed lovers, but that their suit goes back to 1300 and she is therefore 800 years old, and has loved him in many historical guises. He not unreasonably pegs her as a schizophrenic, but accedes to her ministrations and fable spinning.
So we get stories from different eras and cultures, where two characters always embody them and these sections reminded me a bit of David Mitchell’s "Cloud Atlas" in their scope. We also get the woman’s own 800 year story, of how she was adopted by a Medieval nunnery having been left at the door, had a supernatural/divine facility of understanding all languages (which is never explained or justified) and becomes a scribe in the library where she discovers Dante’s "Inferno" and certain mystics who at the time were regarded suspiciously as being on the cusp of heresy.
There is no doubting Davidson’s research here, into "Inferno", German medieval mysticism and the treatment of burns (which for me was the most riveting parts of the book), but they don’t quite hang together. She tells her own personal story of their long love in episodes as a tease each time she breaks off, but they just seem lumpish and not embedded to what has gone before. The other stories represent their love as well, but I feel the book would be no poorer if they weren’t there somehow. The research is rigorous, but the weaving together of motifs is far less so. The woman carves stone gargoyles, hence the name of the book and the man may resemble a gargoyle with his burns and face mask, but it needed a bit more layering until the reveal as to why gargoyles are so important a motif, which comes right at the end. Without it, her journey from nun-scribe to lover outside of the Abbey suddenly jumps eight centuries to her being a sculptress. I just didn’t buy such a leap.
He is a pretty loathsome character, so it’s hard to have sympathy with him. Couple that with the conundrum he faces trying to work out whether she really has lived 800 years or is a madwoman, it is hard to involve yourself in the dilemmas of the book. And, as with his research, clearly Davidson can write, as occasionally he unfurls a rather beautiful metaphor, but too often the writing is unremarkable, so that couldn’t carry me along in an engrossing way either. There is a section where at whatever level of consciousness, the narrator undergoes a journey into the Inferno; now I haven’t read Dante, but the writing here is so unimaginative that I cannot believe it adds anything on the original. In the end the section becomes just another episode in the book, almost stand-alone, when it should surely have much more power and reverberation rumbling through the rest of the book. The boom is a treatise on love, experienced through the ages almost eternally. But there are no real fresh insights into the subject, despite the hokum logic and rules Davidson establishes for the world of this book. He can’t seem to recall any of the history of their shared love she reveals to him and this is also never explained or justified. In the end I just didn’t care for their deep love through time. She might have been an interesting character, either as a schizophrenic (which was always held back in the mix rather than forefronted), or even without the cloud of mental illness hanging over her supposed character, her manic sculpting artistic self was potentially an interesting character study too. But because Davidson didn’t want to commit his view to the reader too early, neither of these are as fully fledged and developed as to make them interesting.
So The Gargoyle is not a book without merit certainly, being a literary work, but not one for me I’m afraid.