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Monday, August 4, 2008

"The Gargoyle" by Andrew Davidson

Official The Gargoyle Website
Order “The GargoyleHERE (US) + HERE (UK)
Read An Excerpt HERE

Reviewed by Liviu C. Suciu:

AUTHOR INFORMATION: Andrew Davidson graduated in 1995 with a BA in English Literature from the University of British Columbia. He has worked as a teacher of English in Japan and a writer of English lessons for Japanese websites. “The Gargoyle” is his first book.

INTRODUCTION: I first heard of “The Gargoyle” on a book forum when it was mentioned as THE literary debut of 2008. I was curious and when I checked out an excerpt, I was immediately hooked and could not wait to get a copy of the book. I started the novel the day it arrived at my door and in two nights finished it, completely enthralled by the hypnotic prose that keeps you glued to its pages and a narrative, that by jumping between two time frames, increases the tension of the novel, making for a superb if occasionally horrifying experience.

SETTING:The Gargoyle” mainly alternates between a contemporary story thread in and near an unnamed US city close to an ocean—presumably Los Angeles from the implied clues—and a medieval storyline set in 14th century Germany, although there are detours to various places including a Viking-era Iceland, Victorian England, medieval Japan, and Dante's Hell, or a close approximation thereof.

FORMAT/INFO: The ARC of “The Gargoyle” that I have stands at 465 pages divided over XXXIII Latin-numbered chapters. The book is mostly narrated in the first-person, present-tense, via our unnamed main character—a once amoral, cynical, and successful porn actor/director and drug addict who is currently a burned cripple recovering from a terrible car accident. In contrast to this narrative, there are interludes that grow in length and intensity, featuring the other main character, Marianne Engel, a mysteriously rich and very popular sculptor of gargoyles who is occasionally hospitalized for schizophrenia. These interludes are presented in the first-person, past-tense and mostly deal with Marianne’s early life as a monastery-raised orphan in 14th century Germany, her meeting with our narrator as a wounded and badly burned mercenary then, and their presumed life together.

August 5, 2008 marks the North American Hardcover publication of “The Gargoyle” via
Doubleday Books. The UK edition (see inset) will be released September 25, 2008 via Canongate Books. US cover designed by Amanda Dewey.

PLOT HINTS AND ANALYSIS:The Gargoyle” starts with the vivid description of the drug-induced car accident that burns and cripples our narrator. After a mixture of explicit burn treatment descriptions and a short but cynical and darkly funny review of his life experience, Marianne Engel makes her appearance as a temporary psychiatric patient in the same hospital, and takes over both him and the novel. These first fifty pages are the hardest ones to read from the novel since they involve very explicit and sometimes stomach-turning descriptions of burn injuries, their highly painful treatment procedures, and assorted induced nightmares, but the matter-of-fact cynical tone and the backstory interludes make the scenes bearable. And they are necessary for only in the crucible of pain, humiliation and the knowledge that it's a life sentence can the narrator move beyond the disgusting person that he once was. So even if you find those pages horrifying, persevere, especially once Marianne Engel makes her entrance because you will be hooked by the mystery that she represents as well as her larger-than-life persona.

Providing an added dimension to the book is the rest of the hospital staff and their numerous memorable scenes that could be quite mawkish in the hands of a less talented writer. Of these, a Christmas hospital party, a Japanese therapist escaping a stultifying life in her country, and a likable shrink are some of the highlights in this part of the novel.

Soon discharged from the hospital, Marianne returns repeatedly and slowly gains the trust of the dedicated doctor treating our narrator, while our narrator starts becoming addicted to her visits. When she mysteriously stops visiting for a week, he is very distressed and returns to his elaborated suicide plans after discharge, but then Marianne returns and explains that the gargoyles that she sculpts are actually “alive” and “talk” to her demanding her full dedication to finishing them, thus explaining her occasional disappearances. But are these merely ravings of a sick woman that refuses to take her medications once she leaves the hospital?

And there is a hitch. Marianne endows each of her gargoyles with a heart from her large but not unlimited supply of hearts inside her, and the last heart is supposedly for him. More ravings?

And then of course the medieval interludes start, and despite his initial mocking and disbelief, the narrator gets drawn into the story with us. From here, the book is impossible to put down, demanding to be finished and concludes with an ending that is very well done and brings the story full circle. Many passages from the novel remained with me for a long time and I would go and reread them from time to time. I expect I will reread this novel several more times to fully experience its texture and wonderful prose.

With echoes of several famous novels, but written in a very personal and accomplished style, “The Gargoyle” makes a well deserving claim to being THE literary debut of the year. By turns, it will horrify you, it will enchant you, it may even bewitch you, but ultimately you will fall in love with “The Gargoyle” because it is impossible not to care about our narrator, Marianne and their epic love story across the gulf of time, space, and even the gates of Hell…

Highly, highly recommended.


Scott said...

The last three words of your review have given me relief. I got a copy of this (an ARC through BookMooch), and was so looking forward to reading it. Then I saw a magazine review that slammed the book as drivel. I had my doubts about the review, but had me wondering. Your opinion I trust much more.

I will be reading this next.

RedEyedGhost said...

Great review! If I hadn't already ordered it, then your review would have pushed me over the edge.

My copy shipped today, and I can't wait to read it. (when I'll have time to read it is another story though).

Anonymous said...

Just like you, I couldn't put this book down.

In fact the only way to describe how I felt when I finished this book was that I grieved. I grieved that it was over because I wanted to keep reading and reading.

Absolutely fabulous and I must say, I'm proud he's from Manitoba!

Diane said...

Thank you for posting this review; it was excellent. I've been wondering whether I should read this book or not, and you helped me to make up my mind. Sounds fascinating, especially as a debut novel.

Anonymous said...

i just finished this book and all i can say is that it was one of the most powerful works of art that i have read. i cried for hours upon finishing and can not wait for him to publish another.

April said...

I'm primarily a fantasy/sf reader, but will also read phone books and cereal boxes...

I LOVED this book. I think it appeals to the fantasy reader on many levels, not just the obvious one of previous lives and love through time. There is the introduction to a different world (transformation into "monster" as someone greatly disfigured and maimed; living in the world of the burned, in the burn unit and without). There is the magic/mysticism of Marianne--her calling of gargoyles from stone, her giving of hearts, her living through time and her ability with languages. There's the magic and legends of the tales she tells.

And for the medievalists, there is 14th. C. German mysticsm and the monastery of learned women at Engelthal. For those who love literature, there are the numerous references to Dante's _Inferno_.

I heartily agree with your review and hope others may find and enjoy this book (and many others, of course).

Scarlett said...

The best book I have ever read. Beautifully written.

Dave Duggan said...

I thought this book was probably the worst I've read (and that's quite a few). The plot is ridiculous, totally unconvincing in any sense, the characters empty, the writing awful. The one positive attribute it can claim is being imaginative but that doesn't in any way compensate for terh awfulness of the rest of it.

c0ncept said...


Okay, it is a well written and, at times, very interesting book. However, I really feel that it is over-hyped, if it genuinely is the "best book [you've] ever read", I can only suggest that you read more!

I thought the short stories that Marianne Engles told were engaging (the Japanese one, with the glass statue, was especially beautiful), but the ending (common literary complaint, but bear with me)utterly spoilt the book.

Davidson spent the better part of 350 pages writting beautiful stories of love and redemption and then, as soon as The Burned Man was redemed, takes it all away from him. If Marianne WAS schizophrenic and the whole tale was the ramblings of a disturbed woman then the narrator is guilty of no less than murder, if it wasn't then I can't see Marianne's walking into the sea as anything less than suicide (which within her religion would damn her to Hell...).

All in all I was left with a feeling not of redemption, or sorrow, but a curious emptiness. I couldn't empathise with the narrator or Marianne and saw the whole last chapter as a saccharine mess of "but it was ok, because I still had friends and Sayuir and Gregory got married and had a child".

I could have bought into the ending more, I think, if the narrator had, but since he was still so cynical about the whole affair I had no choice but to aquiesce to his cynicism and dismiss Marianne as a schizophrenic who had done a lot of research, which was such a shame as I really WANTED to believe her story.

Liviu said...

Thank you for all the comments; it's been now almost two years since I read the book and the hype dissipated, so with the passage of time I have to say that the book remained in my memory considerably more than others; in hindsight - and after reading more reviews and opinions of others - I think the one thing the author took a gamble on and did not quite succeed was the brutal opening with its very realistic description of third degree burns; I saw many people put off by that and the book went downhill for them, but if you persevere, the story remains compelling

Michelle Partridge said...

Once I picked up the Gargoyle I could not stop reading it. I started reading it in the check out line at the store and didn't stop until I finished it at 2am that night. Perhaps some people might be put off by the detailed descriptions of the main character's injuries and treatment, but these are quickly overshadowed by Marianne and the stories she shares. A wonderful book, truly exceptional, and highly recommended.

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