Have you ever seen a book with black-edged pages? I certainly hadn’t, until I spied The Gargoyle on the shelf. A blood red cover with black-edged pages and a burning heart on the front, it certainly appealed to me, and even more so when I read the blurb. A mix of romance and adventure, reality with a hint of reincarnation thrown in? As someone who can't resist time-slip novels, I was walking out of the shop with The Gargoyle under my arm before I knew it.
It was only when I got home and googled the novel that I became aware of the immense hype surrounding it. Comparable to Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose and Michael Ondaatje’s The English Patient? Author receives a seven-figure advance salary? Oh dear. I can’t stand hyped-up novels - more often than not, they tend to fall a bit flat for me, as my expectations are always too high - but I was determined not to let that put me off this book. And, I have to say, I’m glad it didn’t.
The narrator, who remains nameless throughout the novel, is not the most likely of heroes. A beautiful, arrogant and misanthropic porn-star with a rather strong coke habit and a soulless existence, he is seemingly the result of a much-disturbed childhood blended with an equally as disturbed modern adult lifestyle, and bombards his way through the book with a sarcastic, scathing and cynical attitude. Foul-mouthed and ungrateful, you’d find it easy to really dislike him, if it weren’t for the fact that the poor man has suffered a horrific car crash and severe burns as a result, losing his pride and career along the way, as well as certain body parts which mean that a return to the porn industry is now impossible.
Davidson has no doubt done his research into burns victims and their treatments, and it is this which initially grips and disgusts the reader; it is a wearing read, exhausting and stomach-churning, in particular because of the narrator’s insistence on describing each and every treatment, peppered with memories of his childhood and crude observations on his old lifestyle, and the new one which awaits him.
Enter Marianne Engel. A gargoyle carver by trade and a psychiatric patient in the hospital where the narrator is being treated for burns, she visits him during his treatments, telling him stories of a time in 14th century Germany where they were, she maintains, lovers. As you may expect, our disillusioned and cynical narrator finds this all rather hard to swallow, but a strange relationship slowly forms between the characters nonetheless. Just as she takes care of him initially, so does he begin to take care of her after his recovery and as the novel progresses, it is hard to know who needs the support of hte other more and what will become of these two peculiar characters, debatably connected to each other by dozens of intertwined previous lifetimes, pulling them together once again.
And the lives are described in great detail; richly depicted and atmospheric, the reader is taken on a journey from medieval Germany, where Marianne Engel apparently cared for the narrator after he received horrific burns, to Japan, Iceland and Italy, in a mass of colourful descriptions and vivid action. It is these haunting depictions which undoubtedly make the book.
Aside from some amazingly vibrant descriptions, the writing tends to be a little disjointed (the recurring snake-in-the-spine analogy, in particular, does not work), although the characters are, at least, complex and somehow strangely plausible; Marianne Engel has a chilling dark side lurking beneath her too-good-to-be-true exterior, and the narrator himself even breaks out of his cynicism and negativity to mull over the works of Dante and give appropriately wry observations at times. No, these are certainly not one-dimensional characters, and any clunky writing can, with a little effort, be mainly overlooked.
Did these characters truly live together in different times? Are these personalities connected together for eternity, condemned to returning to each other over and over? These interesting questions are left mainly unanswered by Davidson, in a tactic which, even if deliberate, leaves the book feeling a little incomplete and unresolved.
It is hard to know how to rate The Gargoyle; it has all the imagination, inspiration and promise of an extraordinary novel, but ultimately lacks the high standard of writing needed to match, and so ultimately falls just a little short of the mark. Is the writing some of the best you will ever read? No; there are great characters and mesmerising period descriptions but these are interspersed with clumsy prose that can verge on being dull at times. But is The Gargoyle worth reading for its daring and captivating ideas, for its imagination? As a book containing concepts which, more than a year after reading it, I still find myself thinking of and wondering at, the answer has to be, undoubtedly, yes.