BY SEAN CLARK
Author: Peter Ackroyd
2009, Nan A. Talese
I bought this book on a dorky impulse (it’s the sort of thing that occurs often), mostly because Frankenstein is one of my favorite novels, and because I had recently read John Kessel’s awesome short story, “Pride and Prometheus.” Peter Ackroyd does Shelley’s book justice, deftly weaving historical fiction into the classic’s universe. The book offers a retelling of the famous monster story. In this version, Dr. Frankenstein’s laboratory is in a London warehouse (he’s from Switzerland), and he is best friends with the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, who of course was Mary Shelley’s husband. The mixing in of the biographical fiction is a welcome change for the familiar plot, and Ackroyd’s experience with historical fiction lends a feeling of freshness.
The atmosphere and writing are the book’s greatest strengths. The setting is wonderfully gothic, with the mood and atmosphere transferred from Mary Shelley’s book with reverence. The writing, while not of the variety that will wow you and make you want to revisit and savor lines, captures this atmosphere nicely. Ackroyd doesn’t emulate Shelley’s voice (wisely), but does a remarkable job of representing the time period.
I’m not going to bother explaining the plot, as everyone knows the basics of the monster story, and you can read a Bysshe biography on Wikipedia. This book could have easily fallen into a disjointed pile, and struggled to meld biography with the retelling of a classic, and indeed it was a fear I held upon first opening the book. Luckily that isn’t the case. The historical characters fit nicely, and Ackroyd presents the tale as a convincing history (it’s told through Dr. Frankenstein’s perspective) that feels quite organic. There is no Igor, (Igor is a Hollywood creation not Shelley’s) and I’m glad he didn’t simply repackage a lot of stock monster movie stuff many people probably think of when imagining a Frankenstein narrative.
While the historical fiction angle is a charming asset for the book, it also presents difficulty for the author (and the reader). We know that Bysshe died a young man. And a book purporting to take place in a real time period—with real science and medicine described, I’m presuming, with a degree of historical accuracy—has a hard sell before it if it wants the reanimation of a corpse by a mad scientist to feel credible. These problems don’t rear their heads until the very end of the book, but when they did, I was supremely disappointed.
This didn’t feel problematic ahead of time mostly because, knowing it was fiction, I assumed Ackroyd would sidestep reality for the sake of telling a good story. Ideally he’d have found a way to tie Bysshe’s death to the larger horror plot, thus validating the fictional science by evidencing it against known history. He didn’t. Instead, he more or less allowed Bysshe to drop out of the book once Mary Shelley appeared as a character, giving the impression that the poet wasn’t much needed for the story after all. In fact we only hear of Bysshe’s death through a letter from Mary to Victor.
To make things worse, Ackroyd then pulled a lazy, hack job, blame-it-on-insanity ending that almost ruined the book for me completely (that’s not really a spoiler, because a man trying to reanimate corpses is undeniably insane). In fact, until the last 10-15 pages, I had planned on nominating this book as a Great Read. After the final chapter, I quickly changed my mind on that.
Still, it was an enjoyable book, and fans of Frankenstein, sci-fi, 19th century poets, and historical fiction will certainly have fun reading it; just be warned it ends abruptly and may–if you’re like me–leave you a tad unsatisfied.