Andrew Davidson’s debut novel The Gargoyle is certainly striking, and not just because of its blackened pages. The Gargoyle is more of a composition of short stories that has Marianne Engel, a schizophrenic stone-carver, and a nameless pornstar who has suffered severe burning after a car accident, at the novel’s centre. What unfolds is a tale of love, loss and religion – and one that will leave a very strong on impression on you after you have read it.
Davidson is clearly a master storyteller. When the narrator meets Marianne Engel, he is in a burn ward dosed up on morphine, so changed beyond recognition that he is quickly losing the will to live. However, despite Marianne’s schizophrenic tendencies, he becomes absorbed in her visits and in her stories that, though she claims they are true, the narrator tries to denounce. Davidson manages to achieve all this without a single moment of sentimentality until the very final few pages (which for me took away a little of the merit of the novel). The narrator is convincingly brutal in his observations about the people trying to help him and about Marianne Engel initially, and we are drawn into his very narrow world of pain and survival.
The Gargoyle, however, is initially off-putting. Recommended by a friend, I was a bit disconcerted when the opening chapter details, rather graphically, the narrator’s cocaine-induced car accident in which he is burnt and then the hospital’s actions immediately afterwards, for example assessing the degree of burns and performing skin grafting and various other surgeries. The narrator is certainly not a character to be admired or liked at the opening of the novel, and whilst this is not always so much of a problem, it’s very easy for a reader to be completely alienated during the opening few chapters and the narrator makes no effort to provide an emotional connection with us.
What I would say, though, is to give this novel a chance. Get through the opening chapters and meet Marianne Engel, then the pages will be turning past faster and faster. Davidson’s characterisation is pretty much perfection, in the case of both Marianne and the narrator. At times the plot can be very intensive when Marianne is adamant about her medieval origins and her need to release the hearts of the gargoyles she carves, yet we never for a moment doubt that these characters are realistic and grounded.
Simply put, The Gargoyle is a very impressive debut, something that many writers can only hope to achieve. Davidson will have a tough job to follow this up with something as equally moving and involving.
By Julia Molloy