The Case Book of Victor Frankenstein by Peter Ackroyd

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The Case Book of Victor Frankenstein by Peter Ackroyd

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Category: Historical Fiction
Rating: 4.5/5
Reviewer: Ruth Price
Reviewed by Ruth Price
Summary: Peter Ackroyd creates his own monster in this fine work of the imagination. He suggests that Victor Frankenstein was not fictional, but a friend of Percy and Mary Shelley. Creepy, imaginative and an essential read for the lovers of Gothic novels.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 304 Date: September 2008
Publisher: Chatto and Windus
ISBN: 978-0701182953

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For fans of the Gothic novel, the gathering of Percy Bysshe Shelley, Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley and Lord Byron in Villa Diodati on Lake Geneva in Italy has iconic status. From this meeting of minds there emerged a story-writing contest, with the creation of the first romantic vampire story and Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, two major themes in Gothic literature.

What Peter Ackroyd has done is very clever. It's not a prequel or a sequel. In The Casebook of Victor Frankenstein, he suggests that the eponymous Victor was a personal friend of Shelley (they met at university). Victor is depicted as present at Villa Diodati when the Frankenstein story was written. By this point in the novel, Victor Frankenstein has already created his monster with the aid of resurrectionists in London. The monster pursues him to the Villa and is seen by Mary Shelley, thus inspiring her story.

It's a long time since I've read Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, and I recall finding it hard going and dry. This novel is an undoubted page-turner, but the Victor Frankenstein created by Peter Ackroyd is decidedly the same person that Mary Shelley created. He speaks in the same voice, his views and interests are the same, he sounds authentic for his period – nothing jars. It's a very impressive piece of writing, packed with historical detail.

For those that are familiar with the character of Victor Frankenstein, he is a pretty dry stick. However, his asceticism, detached cruelty and intellectual drive is softened when set in context with the spirit of the times. Frankenstein, along with Shelley is caught up with a contemporary enthusiasm for science. Ackroyd writes convincingly about the packed lectures, where the wonders of electricity are demonstrated, where politics, religion and philosophy are discussed, where radical thinkers plan to change the world with sexual freedom and abandonment of rigid class structure. A real sense of the excitement of the times is conveyed, without losing the authenticity of the characters with anthropomorphisms. Victor is still a dry old stick, but I understood him better. He is ruthless, wheedling, indecisive and self-pitying, but he is entirely in keeping with Mary Shelley's original character. Percy Shelley, too, is very well-drawn and just as I imagined him. Ackroyd really is a master at creating living characters.

He's also superb at physical description and creating atmosphere. I admit a preference for vampires over monsters, but this is a most enjoyable read - scarily graphic at times. I have a couple of quibbles though. I'm sad that Mary Shelley becomes a reporter of actual events rather than the creator of a truly original story as she was in reality, but that is inevitable, considering the nature of this novel. There is also a powerful twist at the end of the final chapter. Without giving anything away, it left me frustrated. This twist did result in me having a long discussion with my sometime-better-half, who loves a bit of Goth too, about whether this ending was satisfactory, annoying or brilliant. I still haven't decided, but my pondering surely proves this novel has a resonance. Peter Ackroyd's monster, just like Victor Frankenstein's, just won't go away, making The Casebook of Victor Frankenstein an essential buy for the bookshelf of any reader interested in Gothic fiction.

Thanks to the good people at Chatto & Windus for providing The Bookbag with this fine piece of writing. We also have a review of The English Ghost by Peter Ackroyd.

Further reading suggestion: Chasing Angels by Sally Zigmond is set during a similar period, partly in Frankenstein's Switzerland; for a look at the science behind Frankenstein's monster (or could it really exist), A Teaspoon and an Open Mind by Michael White may be of interest. For a taste of Ackroyd the biographer you might like to try Poe.

Booklists.jpg The Case Book of Victor Frankenstein by Peter Ackroyd is in the Top Ten Historical Fiction Books.

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