This book has sat on my shelves waiting to be read for an absolute age. I think I may have simply forgotten I had it, seeing as most of my bookshelves are double-stacked at best. It’s certainly not the kind of book – or author – I would usually wilfully ignore. On the other hand, it may have been the fact that he was rewriting – and taking a few liberties with – one of my absolute favourite books, which I know so well I could probably recite chunks of it in my sleep. In German. In verse. But this is Peter Ackroyd, an author I normally admire greatly. Surely I should have more faith and trust in his ability to tell a good story?
The first and most fundamental change that Ackroyd makes is to move the bulk of the action to London, although there are forays into continental Europe – in particular the Villa Diodati, and we all know what happened there. His interweaving of fact (there are more Romantic poets in this story than you can shake a stick at) and fiction is both very plausible and very well done. You could almost believe that Frankenstein not only existed, but he gave Mary Shelley the idea for her breakthrough novel.
However, it is the Creature about whom Ackroyd has been at his most mischievous. Rather than being a patchwork of corpses, it is one newly dead poet whom Victor reanimates using what was then cutting edge and revolutionary scientific theories and methods – not to mention relying on some very unscrupulous resurrection men. To say it’s believable is an understatement. You can smell the frying flesh. I somehow prefer this version to poor Igor dropping the intended brain and swapping it for that of a convict.
There are echoes of the original story which Ackroyd uses without changing very much and these fit in beautifully to an otherwise completely different tale. For example, the Creature asking for a mate and Victor’s adamant refusal could have been lifted from the original 1818 text. The ending, however, is totally different and well worth the wait.
If I have one complaint about this book, it is this – why retell an already popular story? Ackroyd’s fiction already has a very distinctive voice and eclectic subject matter, so I find this choice unusual for him. It seems to be a precursor to the recent trend for bestselling authors to rewrite Shakespeare’s plays. Pointless, but I suppose it’s an income.
I can’t not recommend this book. It’s a great story well told and, if you like Shelley’s original novel (which I do) you’ll find a lot to enjoy here. However, it is ultimately not the same story and any further comparisons are unfair to both books. And now, I want Peter Ackroyd to rewrite my other favourite book, Dracula, so I can have a matching pair of monsters.