Reading The Gargoyle was an incredibly diverse experience. It’s a good story, interesting, different, thought-provoking. It offers simultaneously new and old perspectives on religion, mental health and history. I thoroughly enjoyed it even outside of what I think it has to offer any aspiring writers. There are many reasons to read this book, as a reader and as a writer, but I’ve tried to narrow it down to three. So, in no particular order:
Showing, not telling.
The Gargoyle is one of the most visually present books I’ve ever read; the “showing” is phenomenal, which seems particularly impressive as it is a narrative of telling. We are told several stories and yet each history, mythological adventure or supernatural experience is shown through the descriptive language, the protagonist’s sense of humour and the various themes explored throughout.
For the first hundred or so pages, I was reading about ten minutes at a time before I became too uncomfortable in my own skin to continue; the experience of being burnt alive was made unnervingly real to me. And while I understand that making a reader squirm isn’t necessarily your goal, you cannot deny that it is a valuable skill-set to have. It is an ability that travelled through every page of this book and gave every other element of the story depth and tangibility. There is showing within philosophy, religion, societal practice and cultural history. The Gargoyle weaves together several histories with a succinct commentary that left me envious of thoughts more organised than my own.
Perhaps the most subtle of narrative strands, and most delightfully elusive, was the relationship that ties each and every story together, whether true or fabricated. The relationship between the protagonist and his Engel is not at the front of this story. It is something you sensitively, almost intrusively, discover. And it is almost exclusively shown. There is no ‘be still my heart’, no ‘I’m weak at the knees’, there is only a meeting and every beginning that follows. And this is largely because the work is riddled with thought. It’s philosophical and thematic and deceptively intense.
One of the many many themes I discovered, is that of outward versus inward beauty.
This is not a new theme by any means, and yet, in The Gargoyle it’s presented in a new way. I believe it is an important theme to lift for the purposes of reading to write, because of how it’s handled in this book.
Before the accident, the protagonist made his livelihood off his looks. After the accident, his appearance was something wholly ruined. And it takes the entire novel for the protagonist to come to a particular understanding about his new reality. It’s a unifying strand, a foundational arc, and yet it is something that flits into focus here and there. Towards the second half of the book it becomes even less pronounced and yet it almost bear more emphatic weight.
I’ve read a couple of fictional representations of the internal struggle that might occur if someone who places great value in their appearances suddenly has that beauty taken from them. Even when this is one of the main plot points, I’ve almost always found myself distinctly disappointed in the characters and the in-your-face “message” the theme might be trying to convey. In The Gargoyle I found it humbling and thought-provoking. If there is ever a theme I wish to explore as an author, I will certainly be practising the nuanced approach I found here.
Having said that, I focused on this theme in particular because it’s a fairly obvious theme and I was surprised by how well it was managed. It’s merely one of very many brilliant explorations.
I know, big surprise, it is important to do your research, blah blah blah. But, to be perfectly honest, it’s been a while since I’ve read a book that ties possibly boring or controversial topics together so beautifully. We’re talking religion, history, mythology and the potential beginnings of bookbinding. This book is rich with the language, fonts and processes of previous eras, and it transformed the reading experience.
Latin, German, Mandarin, Old Norse … Don’t get me wrong, I don’t know enough to know whether it was all correctly used, but I know enough to know the German was. The Gargoyle is one of the first fictional books I’ve read where I could distinguish so many different beliefs, cultures and languages and how they are all influential and crucial to a sense of self. Identity, culture and language are inseparable, and this book is exceptionally crafted to demonstrate this.
If you have different cultures in your writing, if you’re approaching different accents and languages and different or opposing perspectives, then this book could be a wonderful help in determining how to set up those differences, when to emphasise and when to pull back. I would strongly recommend it every time.
Perhaps the only criticism I have of this book, and which I would certainly be looking out for in my own writing, is relying on the writing for too long. There is no denying that Davidson is a fantastic writer. The words in this book are skillfully crafted like the grotesques, but by the second half of the book, as a reader, I needed the story to progress faster, I needed the plot to develop and the characters to evolve. All the above elements were laboured for a couple hundred pages too long.
That said, I believe this is one of those rare tomes where you could read the work once every year and never experience it in the same way. It’s a book that will keep on giving, and so there is a good chance the second half has more to offer than I experienced this time round.