I was recently re-reading Neil Gaiman’s American Gods, and was once again struck but his startlingly original take on the nature of gods and legends. It seems as if characters like Frankenstein, Dracula, and Sherlock Holmes have passed into legend and authors like to use them the way that Native American storytellers used Coyote. All of them are interesting, and I could go on for hours, but I really brought it up because it pertains to The Monster’s Wife, an excellent novel by Kate Horsley. Ms. Horsley’s novel is a take on Frankenstein, but it is told with such originality and force that it takes on a life of its own, and I would have enjoyed it even if I had never read, or even heard of Mary Shelly’s tale.
Set on a tiny island in the Scottish Orkney’s the story centers on two women, May and Oona, who are best friends. They are wonderful characters, beautifully drawn; May carefree and wild, Oona more introspective, perhaps because of a heart ailment that constantly reminds her that she is living on borrowed time. One thing that they have in common is the constant discrimination that single women were subject to in that time and place. The prose is poetic and every page seems to have at least one sentence that aches to be read aloud, but a cauldron of anger, fully justified, simmers underneath, and kept me constantly on edge.
The plot is simple; Victor Frankenstein shows up on the island and in secret, continues his experiments on the dead in an effort to find a wife for the un-named monster that has trailed him across the world. May and Oona both end up working as maid for him. What gives the book such tension is the constant friction that exists between the islanders, and the foreign doctor. The ever-present torch-carrying mob is always a threat, lingering just beneath the placid surface. When evidence of unsavory experiments begins to surface Ms. Horsley ratchets the tension up even higher. The fact that Oona is literally a heartbeat away from death gives the narrative a poignancy that permeates every facet of the book. There are some terrific lyrical passages where Oona seems to simply be bursting with her love of the physical world, and Ms. Horsley nails what could be sentimental twaddle in lesser hands.
In this take on the tale, the element of the supernatural is small. In an age when the line between science and magic was constantly blurred I thought that a light touch worked best. The menace, however, and sense of physical danger, are both very present in the book. In a rather ironic way the biggest sense of danger comes not from the unknown, but the known; several men in the book seem far more dangerous to Oona and May than some hypothetical monster.
A pile of sub-plots crisscrosses the book, but I am loath to speak of most of them because I hate spoilers, and there are plenty here. The insularity of the small island, and its isolation works wonders in this story. Even surrounded by the limitless ocean everything seems compressed and up close, creating a suspense that Ms. Horsley uses to her advantage. The twists and turns that make up the latter half of the book are particularly tense, and well executed, except for a few scenes where I was a bit lost about whose point-of view we were seeing events through, but that is a tiny complaint. By the end of this book I wanted to stand up and cheer, which probably gives you an idea of how much I liked it.