"Satirizing the classic Victorian novel, Poor Things is a hilarious political allegory and a thought-provoking duel between the desires of men and the independence of women, from one of Scotland's most accomplished authors."
It seems like a really boring and obvious thing to say that this novel is Gray’s reimagining of Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein but it’s apt. Not only does the plot take obvious inspiration from the horror classic, the style of the book itself fits in perfectly with that era of writing.
This book is multilayered, beginning with an intro from Alasdair Gray himself explaining how the manuscript for this novel was found amongst a slew of papers in a pile of litter on the street after a university clear out, from there we get the main body of the book, the supposedly true story “Episodes from the Early life of a Scottish Public Health Officer”, following that is a letter seemingly denouncing everything in the memoir and finally an appendix from Gray giving some historical notes and personal opinions on the text.
The whole book is a collage and, with its use of memoirs, letters, diary entries and various other mediums, feels very old fashioned. It’s easy to buy into the notion that this really is some long lost 19th century text.
The story sees a young man, McCandless, befriend an eccentric and reclusive scientist named Godwin Baxter. He meets Baxter’s adopted daughter Bella and learns quickly that she is a reanimated corpse with the brain of an infant child.
From there we see him infatuated with Bella, who elopes with another man and spends time traipsing some of Paris’ less reputable establishments, discovering the world anew, a child trapped in a grown up body.
I must admit, despite Gray’s ever wonderful writing style and the interesting way that the story was presented, I actually felt pretty indifferent to this book as I made my way through it.
I enjoyed the story and characters but didn’t love them and was ready to give the book a general “meh” in my review.
Until I came to the letter at the end. The letter from Bella McCandless, which seems to disprove everything in the story. Bella remembers her childhood, impossible if she died and had her brain replaced with a child’s. She sets the record straight about her elopement and relationship with McCandless and seems completely confused about why he would choose to write such a ridiculous story, even going out of her way to point out that the entire thing is a complete rip-off of Frankenstein.
This, and Gray’s notes on the story, which only serve to muddy the waters even further, leave the reader completely bamboozled, with no idea what parts of the story are true, who can be trusted, if anyone.
This twist in the story left me in complete awe of the book, changing a fairly humdrum story into something spectacular. Showcasing yet again that nothing that Gray sits down to write, is ever straight forward, is ever what the reader expects.
I’ve nothing but respect for Alasdair Gray. I’d easily call his name if asked to name the greatest writer living today. His work is extraordinary, and always a surprise. Poor Things is no different.