Alias Grace is a 1996 historical fiction novel by Canadian writer Margaret Atwood. In it, Atwood fictionalises the story of the real life and crimes of Grace Marks. She and another servant in the same household, James McDermott, were tried and convicted of the 1843 murders of the householder Thomas Kinnear and his housekeeper (slash secret lover) Nancy Montgomery. McDermott was sentenced to death and hanged, while Marks’s death sentence was commuted. Was she actually guilty, or was she wrongfully imprisoned?
Alias Grace begins in 1851, when the narrator, Grace, is 24 years old. She has already been imprisoned for eight years (yes, she was only 16 when all of this went down). Being a rather well-behaved prisoner, her days are spent as a domestic servant in the Governor’s home. She’s returned to prison at night.
The Governor’s wife rubs shoulders with a lot of progressive types, all of whom believe firmly in Grace’s innocence and campaign frequently for her release. Grace herself claims to have no memory of the murders, and whether or not she participated in them. She wasn’t crazy enough to remain in the Asylum, where they first took her to assess her apparent amnesia, but she’s clearly got a few loose in the top paddock. So, her advocates call in Dr Simon Jordan, a psychiatrist (psychiatry being a burgeoning field at the time, often criss-crossing with other, less reputable, disciplines), to interview her and figure out – once and for all – whether she is a murderess.
Alias Grace is styled as a quilt (quilting being a frequent motif in Grace’s narrative) of epigraphs, letters, confessions, reports, and Dr Simon’s experiences, between and around Grace’s account of her own story. Some of these are drawn from real documents about the real Grace Marks and her crimes – but the Dr Simon character and a lot of what Grace accounts is fictional. Atwood does it so smoothly, though, that you’d believe it was all one or the other.
Dr Simon gets Grace to tell him her life story from the beginning – emigrating from Ireland to Canada, finding work as a servant, and so on – with the hopes that it will trigger her memories of the murders (or at least give some clues as to why they’re absent). I assumed I could see where Atwood was going with it all – it was clear early on, to me at least, that she was going to leave us in a grey area, with no confirmation as to what “really” happened – but she still managed to squeeze in a few surprises.
Oh, and it gets surprisingly horny, too. Dr Simon loves him some Grace Marks.
I don’t think it technically counts as a spoiler to tell you that Grace is pardoned in the end (because the real Grace was too, duh). She begins a new life in the United States, with a new name and a man who returns from her past and marries her (I won’t tell you who because that would be a spoiler – there are a few contenders).
Atwood wraps things up with a detailed Afterword, explaining what is fact and what is fiction (see above) through Alias Grace. I was interested to see that she originally encountered the story of the real Grace by reading Life In The Clearings Versus The Bush by Susanna Moodie. Atwood absolutely savages Moodie in the text of Alias Grace, wasting no opportunity to point out that her account of the crimes and Grace’s demeanour were absolute bullshit (ahem, gross over-exaggeration, I mean).
One of the aspects I really loved was Grace’s position, as a servant. Nearly every historical fiction novel around this period seems to focus on the lords and ladies, the wealthy and privileged – it’s one of the reasons I tend to shy away from the genre. I always find myself wondering what stories aren’t being told, the men and women who empty the chamber-pots and wash the shirts and cook the meals. Alias Grace finally gave me the insight I was looking for.
Alias Grace is a fascinating and compelling work of historical fiction, one that tells us just as much about Canadian society and gender roles and the field of psychiatry at the time as it does the crimes of Grace Marks. I also loved the sneaky Gothic elements, which felt very true to form for a story of this nature. This book both satisfied my Murderino curiosity and met high literary standards – no mean feat, as it would have been easy to make this story schlocky and scandalous. Atwood has expressed some troubling views of late, but damn if she isn’t a masterful storyteller.
Last year, a little book called Piranesi bowled me over and won my heart. I felt compelled to seek out author Susanna Clarke’s only other novel, a comparatively hefty tome (four times the length, 1000+ pages!) published 16 years prior. Clarke started work on Jonathan Strange And Mr Norrell back in 1992, and worked on it for ten full years before submitting it for publication. So, as I’m sure you can tell already, this book is an undertaking. Just finishing it feels like a triumph! I can only provide a potted summary, though, less this review become almost as long as the book…
(And by the way, there are some gorgeous illustrations in my edition, contributed by Portia Rosenberg – I highly recommend seeking out a copy that includes them!)
Jonathan Strange And Mr Norrell is an alternative history, set in early 19th century England (think Napoleonic war era). As Clarke tells it, magic once ran rife through the British Isles, but has since disappeared entirely… only to suddenly return to two particular men, Jonathan Strange and (you guessed it!) Mr Norrell.
These two are a magical Odd Couple. Jonathan Strange is young, adventurous, and impulsive. Mr Norrell is a cantankerous bookworm, a fusspot of the highest order.
Clarke’s mastery of storytelling is on display right from the get-go. The first chapter of Jonathan Strange And Mr Norrell is exquisitely crafted: word built, exposition clear (but not patronising to the reader), and the hook baited. You can’t help but dive in! The Learned Society of York’s “theoretical magicians” (i.e., old white men who study the history of magic, even though they can’t perform it) is stunned to learn that Mr Norrell – curator of the world’s largest personal library of magic books and books about magic (they’re different) – can actually perform it. Norrell compels them to disband their silly gabfest club, and goes about quietly studying and practicing magic all on his own.
Strange, on the other hand, decides on a whim to simply Be A Magician. He doesn’t know jack about magic or its history, but when has that ever stopped a rich white guy? He travels to meet Norrell (who is now living in London), and blags his way into becoming his student. The two clash – frequently, and how – over the proper conduct of magic, the importance of the legendary Raven King, the employ of fairies, and just about everything else. They battle along for a while, learning from each other and trying not to kill each other, until the conflict becomes too much and they part ways.
Jonathan Strange heads off abroad to help out the troops by magicking up roads and favourable weather conditions, completely on the fly (in fact, heads up, the Napoleonic wars play a much bigger role in the narrative than you might expect), while Norrell stays in London and publishes a lot of stuffy books and papers about the Proper application of English magic. Astoundingly, people actually want to read them, and England ends up divided into “Norrellites” and “Strangites”.
Reminder: I’m skipping over a LOT. Jonathan Strange And Mr Norrell is over a thousand pages long. A LOT happens. The pacing fluctuates throughout. Sometimes, it was so compelling I felt like I couldn’t turn the pages fast enough. Sometimes, it dragged so much that I wondered whether I would ever finish it. That said, I attribute the latter feelings to my own impatience (after everything that 2021 has thrown at my brain), rather than any fault in Clarke’s storytelling.
We get Norrell’s side of the story in the first volume, Jonathan Strange’s in the second, and the third ties it all together with a focus on the Raven King. Jonathan Strange becomes involved in increasingly dark and dangerous experiments, to try and counteract some of the personal tragedies that have befallen him, and Norrell gets a few boots up the bum to remind him to get his nose out of a book every once in a while. Most importantly, the true nature of the book’s villain is revealed, one of the greatest mysteries I’ve ever encountered in contemporary literature: The Man With The Thistle-Down Hair.
Clarke offers a Tolkien-esque level of detail in her speculative history (though she’s far less dull in the telling of it). In fact, she once said that she re-read Lord Of The Rings when she first had the idea for Jonathan Strange And Mr Norell, so the parallel seems natural. She pulls from every literary tradition you can imagine without becoming overwhelmed: the Gothic novel, the comedy of manners, the fantastic, the dramatic… She even gets her David Foster Wallace on and includes 200+ footnotes, each offering some gem of insight into her magical world.
What really sets it apart, though, is the wry humour. It’s like a blend of Jane Austen and Charles Dickens, with a contemporary comic sensibility. By way of example:
It has been remarked (by a lady infinitely cleverer than the present author) how kindly disposed the world in general feels to young people who either die or marry. Imagine then the interest that surrounded Miss Wintertowne! No young lady ever had such advantages before: for she died upon the Tuesday, was raised to life in the early hours of Wednesday morning, and was married upon the Thursday; which some people thought too much excitement for one week.
Jonathan Strange And Mr Norrell
Naturally, given the book’s length and breadth, it’s a book about many things. It’s a scathing critique of bureaucracy, for one. It’s a book about “Englishness”, and the divide between North and South. It’s about the thin line that separates madness and reason. It’s about the “silencing” of underrepresented groups, and the capacity for social change.
That said, Clarke doesn’t rely on the sheer volume of Jonathan Strange And Mr Norrell to invoke all of this. It just so happened that this particular story had such a level of detail and traversed such a world that it required a lot of pages to tell. This isn’t one of those books where you can point to a hundred pages here, or a hundred pages there, and say: “oh, she didn’t really need that, you can skim it or skip it”.
Prior to the publication of Piranesi, Clarke had mentioned in a couple of interviews that she started work on a sequel, focusing on a few of the minor characters. It would seem that progress has stalled (even halted), due to her experience of chronic fatigue syndrome. Her illness, she says, has made the effort to research and write a comparable book is “insurmountable”. I, for one, don’t need a sequel and would rather she save her energy for other endeavours. Jonathan Strange And Mr Norrell is a remarkable book, one that says everything it needs to (though it would undoubtedly take many readings to truly hear it all).
“To all the Jane Austen fans out there, I advise you to avoid this book as assiduously as you would avoid the society of Mr. Collins.” – 24karats
“Boring. Goes nowhere. And takes you forever to get there.” – Jake B.
“Normally, I wouldn’t bother to review a book I hadn’t finished, but thought that, for someone reading through these reviews before purchasing the book, I will gladly mail you my copy. Hell, I will even pay the postage if it means getting rid of it. I tried putting it out with my recyclables, but they said they don’t take human waste material.” – S. OLEARY
Rebecca is a 1938 Gothic novel by Daphne du Maurier, who described it herself in a letter to her publisher as “a sinister tale about a woman who marries a widower… psychological and rather macabre”. I went in knowing the “twist” ending, but still excited to read it, as I’d heard nothing but glowing recommendations from other readers whose tastes don’t deviate much from mine. So, I won’t be hiding any spoilers in this review (don’t @ me).
The opening chapter frames the story to follow: an unnamed narrator living abroad, reflecting on the strange circumstances that led her to that point in her life. It begins with the immortal opening line, “Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again.” Aside from that, the most important thing you need to know at the outset is that the narrator is never named, not even in dialogue.
When the flashback starts, the narrator is a naïve young woman working as a paid companion, holidaying with her employer in sunny Monte Carlo. She’s so passionately extra, I couldn’t help but laugh at her – a mild scene of social awkwardness over coffee becomes a test of her ability “to endure the frequent agonies of youth”. She is the antithesis of a Cool Girl, she has no chill at all. She constantly imagines the worst – whole scenarios and conversations – and reacts emotionally as though it’s actually happened.
It’s masterful psychological profiling by du Maurier (and annoyingly relatable), but it also gets a bit tiring to read without respite. Consider this your heads-up that Rebecca is not a book to be read in a single sitting; space it out a bit in order to enjoy it properly.
When your girl meets the handsome and enigmatic English widower holidaying in the same hotel, Mr de Winter, she freaks out so hard I desperately wanted her to have a Valium and a lie down. He’s wealthy and wife-less and, against all odds, romantically interested in this nervous little creature who’s paid to fold another woman’s underpants. After a fortnight of courting her, he all but demands that she marry him, and – of course – she agrees.
Now, I get that Maxim de Winter is meant to be the bad guy (that much is abundantly obvious, even in the earliest chapters), but like Mr Rochester before him, I’m hot for it. He’s charming and funny (when it suits him), and there’s something undeniably charismatic about him (despite his tendency to bump off wives when they annoy him – told you there’d be spoilers!).
Anyway, after the wedding and honeymoon, the de Winters return to their grand estate in Cornwall, Manderley (the one from the dream, remember?). There, the narrator meets Mrs Danvers, the Manderley housekeeper who remains steadfastly devoted to the first Mrs de Winter (that’d be the titular character, Rebecca), despite her untimely death in a boating accident the year before. Mrs Danvers is a truly chilling villain, capable of gaslighting even the reader – the whole way through Rebecca, she retains just enough plausible deniability to make you really wonder whether her constant attempts to psychologically undermine the narrator are all in the girl’s silly head.
So, the narrator is thrown into the lavish world of Manderley that doesn’t seem ready to accept her, and she hates it, despite loving Maxim. That’s a very strong start to a novel. Unfortunately, the plot then drags a little. The narrator obsesses over Rebecca, her new friends and household staff are cagey when she asks them questions, on and on it goes for a hundred pages or so. You might be tempted to write Rebecca off at this point – but don’t! It’s worth it in the end, I promise.
Things heat back up again when the narrator convinces herself, finally, that Maxim is still in love with his dead wife and there’s nothing she can do to ever truly win his heart. Mrs Danvers catches her at this (in)opportune moment, and tries to convince the narrator to commit suicide (yikes). Just as the narrator is making up her mind to jump, the shout goes up: a ship has wrecked just off the shore!
Not just that, but the divers who went down to try and free the ship’s hull from the reef found something disturbing: Rebecca’s capsized boat, with a body inside. That means that Maxim “identified” the wrong body that washed ashore after Rebecca’s disappearance. Oops!
And then it all really comes crashing down. Maxim is backed into a corner, forcing him to confess to his lovely new wife that he actually killed Rebecca. According to him, she was a cruel and unfaithful wife who managed to charm everyone but him with her beautiful facade (yeah, but mate, you would say that, wouldn’t you?). When she intimated to him that she was pregnant with another man’s child, he shot her – as you do…?
Almost unbelievably, the narrator accepts all of this without question. The prevailing opinion in the room is “Yeah! Rebecca! What a bitch!”. She doesn’t show a moment’s hesitation in helping Maxim cover up his crime. I can only surmise she was so willing to accept her murderous husband’s version of events because it conveniently and completely allayed every fear she’d had about his true allegiance and affections.
An inquest into the discovery of Rebecca’s (actual) body ends with a verdict of suicide. That’s when Jack Favell shows up and starts making trouble. He was Rebecca’s first cousin and lover, and he tries to blackmail Maxim, claiming to have “proof” that Rebecca would not have taken her own life – in the form of a note she sent to him the night that she died, asking him to come meet her.
NOW, this is where I will poke one important hole in an otherwise-fantastic story climax: why did no one consider Favell a suspect in Rebecca’s murder? Here’s this bloke who’s constantly drunk and highly emotional, who was having an affair with a married woman. He shows up with a note from her that shows they were to meet on the evening she died, a note that he failed to turn over to authorities for over a year… I mean, obviously he didn’t do it, but I kept waiting for SOMEONE to say “Mate, you look suspicious AF!”. No one did, though.
Anyway, I’ll try to speed through to the end here: it turns out that Rebecca wasn’t pregnant, but she was terminally ill, and Maxim manages to blame that on her too (“oh, she must have WANTED me to kill her, to save her a painful death, what a bitch!”). He escapes any trouble with the law, BUT the de Winters still have a karmic price to pay for his crime. Mrs Danvers burns the whole damn house down, and effectively forces them into exile.
Seriously, that final scene, that final page with the flames blazing on the horizon, it’s like a bomb going off. It stops abruptly, and leaves your ears ringing and your knees shaking. A chef’s-kiss A+ ending to Rebecca.
My edition includes an afterword by Sally Beauman, written in 2002. According to Beauman: “The plot of Rebecca may be as unlikely as the plot of a fairytale, but that does not alter the novel’s mythic resonance and psychological truth,” (page 437). No one really saw that at the time of publication. Reviewers called Rebecca “nothing beyond the novelette”, a book that “would be here today and gone tomorrow” – a far cry from the dissection of power and gender roles that du Maurier was getting at.
But, time told, after all; Rebecca has never been out of print. It is perennially popular, and has been adapted a bunch of times for both stage and screen (most recently, the 2020 remake for Netflix). I think it’s enduring appeal is due to the fact that it’s a deeply multi-layered literary novel, disguised as romantic fiction. You come for the spooky Gothic love story, but you stay for the evergreen interrogation of women’s subservience to (and subversion of) the rule of men. I’m pleased to report that, one or two quibbles aside, Rebecca lived up to all of its recommendations – and then some.
“I forced myself to slog through this “classic” of gothic fiction and what a waste of time it was. 300 of the overwrought (and very DATED) 400 pages are mind-numbingly boring descriptions of Downton Abbey style tea parties, and the “story,” such as it was, all transpired in the last 80 pages, which themselves could have been edited down to 30.” – White Rabbit
“It was a slow and mildly interesting book.” – MRS M SWART
“Hated this story..too gloomy” – Sheryl Walsh
” One of the most boring books I have ever read. This frequently makes ‘scariest books’ lists and the only thing scary about it is the narrator’s mother.” – K. P. Klima
“This book is, without question, the most boring peace of literature ever written. It makes the technical manual to my VCR look like “Raiders of the Lost Ark”. In fact, it’s so boring that I recommend a new synonym for boring, “Rebecca”. The book is about people who have disgustingly unbelievable personalities, who do really boring things, and make up mysteries about killing people that aren’t even in the story, then insist on telling you about it. The main character/narrator is the most overly emotional and sappy person in all of fiction, and could never ever be a real person, even in the 1920s when this book takes place. She insists on telling you about all of her problems, and how she can never “feel right” at Manderly, even though no sane person could EVER care. It’s enough to make you sick. The story really wasn’t that bad but it could have easily been told in about 1/10 of the amount of time. It’s like Dickens description without everything that makes Dickens good. Even after the thousands of atrocities committed by Hitler, I still consider him to be a great man, for burning THIS book. It’s that bad.” – person
I’m a sucker for a content warning. If the news anchor says “the following content may be distressing to some viewers”, you’d better believe my eyes will be glued to the screen. When the ladies of the My Favorite Murder podcast warned their listeners about the twisted, sickening premise of Flowers In The Attic, I knew I had to give it a go. After all, they’d read it as teenagers, how bad could it really be? Keeper Upperers, consider my lesson learned…
Flowers In The Attic is a (relatively) contemporary (supposedly) gothic novel, first published in 1979. It’s the first book in the Dollanganger Series, so named for the family at the center of the story. It all starts in 1957, with a beautiful family of six (mother, father, and four adoring children) living a comfortable suburban life in Pennsylvania. Naturally, tragedy must strike. The father is killed in a car accident on the evening of his thirty-sixth birthday. Given that he was the family’s breadwinner, and his wife had no marketable skills, the remaining Dollangangers are forced to flee their newly-repossessed house and throw themselves at the mercy of their estranged (but very wealthy) maternal family.
All of this is narrated by Cathy Dollanganger, the second child and eldest daughter. Her perspective reminded me a bit of Scout in To Kill A Mockingbird: a grown woman telling a story from her younger perspective… but that’s about all these two books have in common. Harper Lee’s classic American tale of racial injustice and coming-of-age was confronting in a way, but Flowers In The Attic is grim and sickening on a whole other level.
See, the mother feeds Cathy and her siblings (older brother Christopher, and younger twins Carrie and Cory – all Cs, yes, very clever) some cock-and-bull story about how their grandfather is evil. She says the kids will have to hide out in a far-flung wing of the family mansion until she convinces the old coot that kids aren’t so bad to have around, then he’ll welcome them with open arms and give them all his money. Sounds hinky, right?
When the family arrives, they are given a very cold shoulder by their grandmother – by which I mean she hands them a printed list of heinous “rules” they must follow in order to keep their existence a complete secret from everyone else in the house (even the help! imagine!), under the very serious threat of physical violence. Oh, and there’s a lot of God-talk too: no being naked in front of each other because it’s sinful, no thinking about what anyone looks like naked because it’s sinful, no looking at yourself naked because it’s sinful… you get the drift.
The mother is exempt from all of this, for the most part. She cops a flogging, but at least she gets to move around the house and the servants know she’s there. She tries to reassure the kids that they’ll only be locked up for a few days, but those days turn into weeks, and then the weeks into months. On one of the daily food drops, the grandmother reveals to Cathy and Christopher that they are all, in fact, the product of an incestuous union between their mother and her half-uncle. Heaven forbid! That’s why the kids have to be kept secret, it would seem. If the grandfather knew that his daughter’s marriage to his half-brother had produced progeny, he’d… well, it’s not clear what he’d do exactly, but it would be bad.
Are you following this? It’s a bit convoluted, I’ll grant you. So, here’s a little mid-point tl;dr summary for you: Mummy married her Uncle, and now the kids are locked in the attic so the rich Grandpa won’t write them all out of his Will. Ick. Now, I’m not going to tease you with content warnings or thinly-veiled references to more icky stuff (that’s the carrot that lured me to Flowers In The Attic in the first place). Consider everything from here on out extremely spoiler-y (and gross). Proceed at your own peril.
Things really start to drag in the middle. I mean, there’s only so much of kids whinging that they want to go outside a reader can take. Plus, the holes in the logic of the story become less “mysterious” and more mystifying. I tried to assume that it was all part of a masterful plot, that Andrews was being clever and leading me down rabbit holes, but 200 pages in I had to concede. The fact that they all just seemed to forget entirely about those extensive rules by the second act was what killed Flowers In The Attic for me. On day one, it was all “not a PEEP out of you until AFTER 10am or YOU’LL ALL BE WHIPPED!”, and (it felt like) the next minute the kids are all screaming their little lungs out by breakfast and no one gives a shit.
So, let me skip ahead. It turns out the reason that the evil grandmother was so hard on them with all this God business was that she was worried history was going to repeat itself… which, of course, it does. It comes on gradually, with Cathy suddenly noticing her changing body, and catching her older brother staring at her now and then, but eventually they’re snuggling and making out and there is a particularly awful incident whereby Christopher forcibly rapes Cathy, only for her to later tell him that she “secretly wanted it” and he “didn’t need to feel bad because they did nothing wrong”.
Feel free to take a moment to let the wave of nausea pass. I know I needed to take a few, myself.
The thing is, I’m really only assuming the grandmother’s motivation and role in the whole business. As a villain, she’s completely two-dimensional. Her dialogue and mannerisms are laughably cliche, like a child’s imagining what an evil grandmother would be like. At one point, she is literally (in a dream, no less) likened to the witch from Hansel and Gretel. There’s no insight into her past, her marriage, her motivation for keeping up the charade when (clang!) we find out the grandfather has actually been dead for months.
Ah, yes, the big twist reveal (as if we needed another): the mother and grandmother kept the “flowers” locked in the attic even after the grandfather passed away. The ladies have actually been trying to kill the kids off, by putting arsenic in their daily food deliveries. Andrews explains this strange new malevolence by having the kids overhear the servants say that the grandfather wrote a “codicil” into his will, stating that the mother would never inherit a dime if she had any children. Yeah, sure. Sounds legit. What lawyer wouldn’t sign off on that?
That’s the final straw for the kids (not the locked-in-the-attic-for-three-years thing, not the starved-for-two-weeks-because-Cathy-took-her-shirt-off thing, not the their-mother-didn’t-visit-them-for-months-because-she-was-honeymooning-with-her-new-husband thing, not the death-of-one-of-the-twins thing). Arsenic in their desserts? No, thank you! They hustle up everything of value that they can carry and run away. And they decide not to dob in their mother and grandmother for the imprisonment and attempted murder because…? Something about not wanting to go to a foster home? Wanting their deeply disturbing incestuous union to continue? Holy heck, I could barely bring myself to care by that point. I was just glad to be done with Flowers In The Attic and the terrible, schlocky writing.
Flowers In The Attic is a strange hybrid: a barely-comprehensible poorly-written story full of holes that still managed to disturb and horrify me. At first, I was frustrated by the mistreatment of the children, but all too soon I was frustrated by the children themselves, and the whole ludicrous set-up. I was sickened by the abuse and incest, but also by the fact that this is marketed as a young adult novel. I’m hardly one to restrict any young person’s access to any reading material, but damn. Even for kids that have a taste for the macabre, it’s a bit much, and the quality of the writing and the strength of the resolution (or lack thereof) just doesn’t justify it. If you’re going to serve young readers up a heaping plate of “adult themes”, best you give them some redeeming quality to wash it down with. They’d be better off reading Lolita.
It would seem that I’m pretty much alone in my opinion, however – maybe because I never did, in fact, read Flowers In The Attic as a young adult and as such have no nostalgic attachment to it. The book was an immediate sensation, and went on to sell over forty million copies world-wide. Of course, that success was not without controversy, with schools and libraries removing it from the reach of young readers (with limited success). Controversy also tainted the novel’s supposed inspiration; Andrews maintained all her life that Flowers In The Attic was “based on a true story”, but there is basically no evidence (beyond Andrews’ account and the reported corroboration of an unidentified family member) to support that. I’m not saying people aren’t held captive against their will for years on end, and that terrible things don’t happen… but Flowers In The Attic is so preposterous and flawed, I’m disinclined to believe a word about it.
Still, the legend lives on. There have been two film adaptations of Flowers In The Attic, a stage-play, a slew of sequels, prequels, re-tellings… even after Andrews’ death, the ghostwriter Andrew Neiderman took up the torch and continued publishing under her name. There are now more than 80 books in circulation for the VC Andrews brand, but I can tell you what: as far as I’m concerned, one was more than enough. If you get your jollies being scared, read some decent true crime. If you want some campy gothic fun, read classics like Dracula. If you want taboo, pick up some Henry Miller. But, for the love of all that is good and gory, don’t bother with Flowers In The Attic, not even to see what all the fuss is about.
We’re never too old to try something new. Jeanette Winterson, of Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit fame, decided to have a crack at writing the trans experience last year with Frankissstein. In that spirit, I’m going to try something new with my review, too. See, given the content of this novel, it really doesn’t feel right for me to review it from only my own perspective. I’m allowed to have my own opinion, of course – everyone is! – but I think I would be doing you all a disservice by not calling in someone to speak to this book with me. So, here we have it: the first co-written Keeping Up With The Penguins review.
Writing this review with me is Cathal: a very, very, very (very!) dear friend of mine. We sell books together at a local book store, and also share a lot of mutual love over on #bookstagram. Cathal read Frankissstein around the same time that I did, at my urging. Cathal is a non-binary trans-masc person, like one of the central characters, so he has a particularly important perspective on the most salient aspects of this book.
Frankissstein tells two interweaving stories: a fictionalised account of the life of Mary Shelley in 1816, living with grief and writing Frankenstein; and an imagined near-future with Ry Shelley, a scientist grappling with the new reality of sex bots, artificial intelligence, and capitalist exploitation of those technological developments. Alternating between these two timelines makes for a strange hopscotch of historical fiction and speculative dystopia. Mary Shelley’s life story is fairly well-known, so we probably don’t need to lay too much of that out for you (other than to say that Winterson’s depiction of her, as a brazen outraged feminist who calls Lord Byron out on all of his bullshit, is amazing). Ry’s story is a little more complicated…
Ry was assigned female at birth, but identifies in the book’s timeline as trans/non-binary. It would seem, though, that they pass as masc/male, given that other characters constantly misgender them and mistake their name as being short for “Ryan”. Here’s where the problems begin…
Ry, as a character, is completely flat. Their only notable characteristic is their trans body. It is the only topic of conversation, the only factor at play in their relationships, and that bears little resemblance to the varied, interesting, and complex lives of trans people. Even making room for the demands and constraints of speculative fiction, Frankissstein fails even the most basic test of reflecting anything about actual trans lives and experiences.
Reviewers really, really went for Winterson’s throat on this, how she presented a supposedly-trans narrative. Sheree, as a cis-woman, didn’t want to discount their remarks, but at the same time she worried that their (rightly) impassioned responses might give the wrong impression (or, the right impression, not clearly explained) to other cis-readers. That’s why Cathal came on board for this review, to elucidate.
Winterson is a queer woman, a queer author, and in writing Frankissstein clearly sought to queer a canonical work of literature. Unfortunately, she missed the mark by a long margin. In real-life, she has made public comments that were deeply offensive to trans communities, and it would seem that those attitudes have parlayed into her work. Ultimately, Frankissstein is not a trans story, it wasn’t written by a trans author, and – as Cathal can attest – it wasn’t written for a trans audience.
In fact, it would seem that perhaps Winterson and her team willfully overlooked aspects of Ry’s story that would be hurtful and harmful to trans readers: being called a “freak”, being called a “hybrid”, the constant and unnecessary misgendering, the fetishisation of Ry’s body… While, perhaps, an argument could be made in favour of the artistic merit of any one of those choices, taken as a whole – in a story that only serves a privileged cis-gendered audience – they seem exploitative and cruel.
The only arguably effective attempt that Winterson made to address trans politics and experience in Ry’s story was “that” incident (if you’ve read the book, you know where we’re going with this, and if not, trigger warning!): Ry is violently assaulted in the men’s bathroom at a bar. This section was really resonant for Sheree. In her view, it made a really important statement about the “bathroom debate”. There have been some truly nonsensical arguments made about the supposed “danger” that trans people pose by using the same bathroom as cis-gendered people (particularly trans women using the same bathroom as cis-women). This scene presented the stark reality: in truth, trans people are at far greater risk of being victimised in that situation than being the perpetrators of violence.
Cathal saw it a bit differently. That assault was presented, he felt, as the price Ry had to pay for being who they are. Ry accepted the fact of their rape, without any retribution or resolution to that injustice. It was extremely graphic, no subtlety at all – right down to the use of in-your-face shouty caps – and alienating in its unavoidable gratuitousness. Also, Ry’s emotional reaction and trauma as a result of the rape is completely silenced; in fact, it barely comes up again for the rest of the novel.
Ultimately, we (Cathal and Sheree) still land on different sides of this one, but we can definitely understand and appreciate each other’s point of view.
Where we can completely agree, however, is the historical fiction timeline. Winterson’s talent as a writer truly shines in her depiction of Mary Shelley’s life. She pays due attention to the ways in which Shelley was mistreated, without painting her as a martyr or a voiceless victim. Winterson doesn’t romanticise Lord Byron or Percy Shelley, unlike so many who have written before her. The reader is encouraged to consider Frankenstein as a cautionary tale. As an adaptation, of sorts, it will make the reader appreciate the original even more. For those who haven’t read it, it will surely encourage them to pick it up.
That strand of Frankissstein is a complex and multi-faceted story all on its own. We both feel that, had we read the Mary Shelley story as a stand-alone novel, we would have loved it wholeheartedly. As it stands, however, we urge you to exercise caution when deciding whether to read Frankissstein for yourself. If you’re looking for a book that will open your eyes and teach you something new about the trans experience, give it a miss. If you want to read a beautiful re-telling of Mary Shelley’s life, go ahead and read it – just skip past the Ry chapters.
Note: thank you, again, to my wonderful friend Cathal, for his tireless patience as I pieced together our thoughts for this review. We had a lot of really frank conversations, and I’m so grateful that he took the time to do this. Be sure to check out his #bookstagram and show him the love he well and truly deserves!
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