This was the fifth book I read for the RIP V Challenge. Because I don’t want to get too far behind in writing these reviews, I decided to review all my RIP books by answering the 5Ws―Who, What, When, Where, Why.
4 screams out of 10
… this book isn’t so much scary as it is supernatural. In fact, I would go so far as to describe it as supernatural historical fiction. The gargoyle to the left is found on Notre Dame. If nothing else, this book will make you want to look at gargoyles a little closer. When I was Googling them to look for an image for this post, I was fascinated by how creepy and scary they can be. If I was a bird, I would never hang out on a building that had a gargoyle on it.
WHAT is this book about?
The story is told by an unnamed narrator who finds himself in a hospital after a car accident burned most of his body. His injuries are extensive and horrific. (In fact, the description of his burns and the treatment process accounts for pretty much all of the screams on the scare-0-meter.) He tells us the story of his pre-accident life, which is marked by neglect, abuse and reckless disregard for social mores. (He made his living as a porn star and had a bit of a coke problem.) Finding himself stuck in the burn unit, he realizes he has no relationships that matter and little to live for. Then, one day, a woman named Marianne Engel visits him. At first, he is suspicious of her as she appears to be a mental patient from the hospital. But her behavior and appearance intrigue him. She tells him that they were lovers in medieval Germany and that this isn’t the first time he’s been burned. Curious, he listens to her tales of her earlier life and how they came to meet. Convinced she is mentally unstable but unable to turn her away, our narrator gets more and more involved in Marianne’s fantastic tales … to the point where he begins to question whether she might be telling the truth.
WHO do we meet?
- Our narrator (who remains maddeningly without a name for the entire book) is an intriguing character. I found myself sympathizing with his situation (despite his own hand in causing it) and rooting for him to find a meaning for living. His skepticism and attitude toward Marianne feels very natural, and yet I found myself as caught up in her tales as he was. As he gets more involved with Marianne, we follow him on his own personal descent into Hell.
- Marianne Engel is a compelling character. A sculptor of grotesques, she has a unique approach to her art. Her striking appearance and beauty initially draw in our narrator, but her devotion and generosity to him (as well as her amazingly detailed stories) are what capture his heart. Yet she remains maddeningly difficult to pin down. Is she mentally ill? Is she really remembering past lives? Davidson does a wonderful job of creating this mysterious character, yet never fully reveals his hand about her.
- We also meet several pairs of doomed lovers from different time periods and countries. I loved these stories and found them engrossing, yet I was unsure exactly what their role was in the narrative. At times, I felt that Davidson was saying these stories were about Marianne and our narrator in other past lifetimes. Then I would change my mind about this. (If you’ve read the book, what were your thoughts on this topic?)
WHEN and WHERE does the book take place?
The narrator is recovering from his burns in modern times, but large portions of the book take place in medieval Germany. We also hear stories from Japan, Italy and the heyday of the Vikings.
WHY should you read this book?
If you are a fan of historical fiction and want to read something a bit different in the genre, this book would be an ideal choice. Davidson does a brilliant job of interweaving several stories throughout the book—our narrator’s current life and recovery, Marianne’s tales of their past life together in medieval Germany, several tales of doomed love throughout the ages, and an extended sequence in which our narrator literally journeys to Hell and back. (Davidson was more than a little inspired by Dante’s Inferno, which is referenced throughout the book.) It is a bit of a balancing act and, for the most part, I thought Davidson did an impressive job keeping all the balls in the air.
My only real complaint is that I didn’t end up getting emotionally involved in the story. I found it fascinating and interesting, but I didn’t feel drawn in to the emotional lives of the characters as much as I had hoped. Perhaps it is because of the narrator’s own emotional distance or the fact that we’re so unsure about Marianne’s mental state through most of the book. I also got a little muddled on the “hows” of the story at times. (How did Marianne find our narrator? Were the lovers in the stories Marianne and our narrator in other lives? What about the Japanese woman who cannot speak who appears several times?) Nonetheless, I would recommend this book, especially for fans of historical fiction seeking a different twist on the genre.
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