If you read only one novel in the upcoming year, make sure it’s The Gargoyle.
Manitoban author Andrew Davidson spent seven years researching this book before its final publication in August 2008 to enormous critical acclaim. The depth of time spent crafting it is evident all the way through because no part of The Gargoyle is left to chance. Every moment is deliberate and visceral.
The story begins with a car crash, spawned by a peculiar mix of mind-altering substances that cause the protagonist to see a barrage of flaming arrows flying towards him.
The nameless narrator is a thrice-orphaned child raised in an environment of drug abuse and neglect. As an adult, he is a major porn star getting by on his incredible good looks, resulting in an aura of hedonism and arrogance everywhere. After his car wreck, he is left horrifically disfigured and forced to undergo months of painful rehabilitation at the hospital’s burn unit.
With the life he knew snatched away from him, he has nothing left but to plan his own suicide. Then he meets Marianne Engel, who claims they were lovers in 14th century Germany. The narrator finds himself strangely drawn to Marianne, a sculptor of gargoyles who claims to receive inspiration from the word of God. When he is released into Marianne’s care, he comes to see that the force that binds the two of them may also be destroying her.
Davidson weaves together the telling of two tales, that of the protagonist’s journey of recovery from his car wreck and that of his 14th century self, a mercenary deserter. There is a poetic juxtaposition between the two stories. Davidson’s protagonist tells his own story of the eccentric stranger who wanders into his life to care for him, while Marianne spins the tale of their past lives where he was carried into her quiet life as a nun.
The story dances on two sides of a coin, lacing together conflicting ideologies. The narrator’s embittered atheism grapples with Marianne’s devotion to all things holy, while the harsh reality of his burn-victim rehabilitation is soothed by the fanciful tales of immortal love whispered to him in his anguish.
At the centre of all this sits Dante’s Inferno, which drives the story at both a literal and a metaphorical level. The narrator must travel his own divine comedy, through all the circles of hell into the arms of Marianne. But his recovery of body and soul is laced with torment.
Davidson constructs an unflinching — at times barbaric — story, tempered with a touch of fantasy. It is darkly humourous, heartfelt and tragic, and it offers a spiritual journey that can appeal to the religious and secular alike. Dante may have finally found his spiritual successor; The Gargoyle is a moving portrayal of torture and redemption and, simply put, one of the best pieces of modern literature you will find.