We never learn the name of the narrator of The Gargoyle, but as he says, perhaps there are some things you leave behind when you choose a new life. By the time he concludes his story we understand why he might choose to omit a name that belongs to a former life as a hedonistic pornographer, an existence that is brought to a brutal close when his car drives off the road and into an inferno. High on coke and drunk on bourbon he is distracted by what appears to be a volley of burning arrows swarming out of the woods toward his car.
Oversteering, he plunges into a ravine and is engulfed in flames, an accident that leaves him maimed and horrendously burned.
Were the burning arrows a drug induced hallucination or a memory, and if a memory, from what possible existence?
And so the questions begin in Andrew Davidson’s extraordinary debut novel.
Before the accident, possessed of a striking physical beauty and knack for talking women into his bed, the narrator existed in a hedonistic, drug-addled moral vacuum. In an instant he finds himself in a living Hell, the ugliness of his soul matched only by his appearance, and when we meet him he plans no future beyond the elaborate suicide he contrives from his hospital bed. Not since Dante was a man more in need of a guide through his own personal Hell, and Davidson provides one of the most compelling, mysterious and memorable guides in Marianne Engel, sculptor of gargoyles and sometime psychiatric in-patient at the hospital in which the narrator recovers. Is she, as she claims, a 700 year old former nun from Medieval Germany, his love and wife, whose penance for the transgressions of her life is to sculpt gargoyles and provide each with a heart until all but one of her hearts are used up? Or is she a schizophrenic, manic depressive? Was he, as she claims, a former mercenary, burned three times now across two lifetimes? Do they share a love that has transcended time and death? Or is she insane?
Don’t expect a definitive answer from Davidson. The author carefully seeds his work with contradictions that cannot be resolved, at least not logically. But there is a truth to all this. You’ll just need to discover it for yourself.
While the novel skilfully references the Divine Comedy, The Gargoyle is not a reworking of Dante’s classic tale, although like Dante’s Beatrice, Marianne does guide the narrator through his own personal Hell toward redemption. Or at least the possibility of redemption. Even now I hesitate to describe this as a novel about love and redemption. Not because it isn’t. It is that, but it is so much more, and I confess that there’s nothing so likely to make me suspicious of a novel than a review that describes it as being about “love and redemption”!
Davidson’s gothic fantasy is masterfully written, with a refreshing turn of phrase and imagery, and even unusual typographical incursions in the text by the narrator’s abusive nemesis, a bitchsnake that has taken up residence in his spine (one of the most novel portrayals of drug withdrawal that I’ve come across). With barely a flaw, the novel is perhaps at its most lyrical in the horrific portrayal of the narrator’s accident and medical treatment, with the description of débridement (a procedure in which the dead skin is sliced from a burn victim’s body) as unnerving as anything the masters of horror have to offer.
But more than any other reason, describing it as a novel about love and redemption simply fails to convey the sophistication of the novel’s understanding of both concepts. Through a series of stories, parables of true love if you like (or as Marianne would have us believe, the history of her long dead friends) she educates the narrator about what it truly means to love another, giving him back his life and preparing him for the ultimate act of selfless love. At the commencement of his journey he fails to understand what she teaches: he tries to imagine being so devoted to someone that he could die for them, when in fact what is required is so much more difficult. Only if he can pass through Hell to the other side will he be able to provide Marianne with what she needs: suffering, he learns, is necessary to become spiritually beautiful.
I cannot recommend Andrew Davidson’s extraordinary debut novel highly enough.