The Monster’s Wife

Kate Horsley

(Barbican Press)

First, a confession: I have never read Frankenstein. There’s no good reason for that, it’s just one of those ones I’ve never gotten round to. I know the basic plot, because it’s ground into our popular culture and, like all good pedants, I know that Frankenstein is THE DOCTOR NOT THE MONSTER. What I didn’t know is that part of Mary Shelley’s novel takes place in Scotland, as Victor Frankenstein – under threat of violence and death to his family – holes up in Orkney to create a wife for his monster. However, the internet is a wonderful tool for filling in such details and – one search-engine-fuelled session later – I felt equipped with enough information to tackle Kate Horsley’s novel, which takes Frankenstein’s Orcadian interlude as its starting point:

‘Life changed when he came to the island, the foreign doctor from further away than anyone cared to know. The night he landed, a storm rose and blew boats towards the Northern ice floes, swept Dolphins aground to lie panting on the white scythe of beach. New lambs were stolen and hens found with their throats torn out. Kirk-going women left their cooking and ran wild, reeling home soused to take the distaff to their husbands’ heads. All were agreed that this pestilence followed the foreign doctor to the island as Hell follows the pale rider.’

The Monster's Wife is a palimpsest novel, in the vein of Jean Rhys’ Wide Sargasso Sea, layering new details over and into Shelley’s original text. So, rather than simply taking up Victor Frankenstein's tale, Horsley instead introduces us to two young women – immediately prime candidates to fill the title role – confident, pretty, manipulative May and delicate, reticent Oona, who serves as protagonist. Their friendship, forged in childhood and close enough to raise eyebrows (both amused and not), is a lifeline for both women, trapped in an isolated, patriarchal community, though as the novel opens it is under threat from May’s impending marriage. It’s also the foundation of the novel as May and then Oona are drawn into service for the good doctor, first in his household and then his experiments. The girls’ entanglement with Frankenstein and the effect this has on their loved ones drives much of the plot but it is their bond, stretched and frayed as it becomes, that is Horsley’s focal point.

'"I'm sorry about what I said." May's words sounded choked.

"Me too." [Oona] parted sheepishly from May with a hard laugh, but really she was gladder than she would ever have said. Waves of reassurance washed over her. It was like sitting in the warm shallows on the beach, sun-lavished and worry free. May loved her and she was sure of it. Her darkest thoughts melted in the glow of that.'

This is as much a novel about friendship and the fear of losing that bond, as it is about lightning bolts and reanimated corpses. Both Oona and May know that their closeness cannot go on unchanged, that the grown-up milestones of marriage and children (really all that is on offer to these women), or Oona's fragile health, will come between them sooner or later. Horsley powerfully evokes the pain and desperation of that realisation, as the two women repeatedly split apart and return to each other, forging a distinctly modern theme from her classic source. I did wonder at times, while considering this theme, why Horsley had chosen this story to work into - the bond of female friendship is not something I would immediately associate with Frankenstein, particularly given that Shelley is often accused of doing her gender a disservice by featuring only passive, victimised female characters. That absence in the original novel, though, gives Horsley something to respond to, a gap to fill and something to push against, which she does with great skill here, finding a female perspective and experience that both works to enrich her source and create a powerful story on its own terms.

That's not to say that there isn't great play with the themes of Shelley's original. Inevitably, death is everywhere in this story. The elderly freeze during the island's brutal winters. Fishermen are lost to the sea. Bodies (and their constituent parts) pile up, get dropped in the sea, float back to shore. Most significantly, our heroine is marked for an early death, her irregular heartbeat weakening like her mother’s before her. Meanwhile, at the centre of it all is the man who struggles against death with a combination of scientific genius and callous arrogance. That these two death-fixated characters will intersect is inevitable but Horsley holds us in suspense as to how this will be. Painted variously as shadowy stranger, tragi-romantic hero and mad scientist, this Doctor Frankenstein is slippery, unknowable in a way that suits a man whose own story exists parallel to this one. We know what the doctor wants, where he has been, where he is going but we don’t know what he is or will be to this community, to May and especially to Oona.

‘“[The drawing is of] a human heart, the body’s most vital organ. As long as this beats, blood courses through the veins and arteries, bringing necessary elements to the organs and nervous system, pumping life upwards to the seat of human identity – the brain – and downwards.” He turned the page to a drawing of a sweet pea flower, its round fruit curving up from it on long tendrils. “Down to the organs of generation, the seat of the feminine. Eve’s curse…or blessing, as the Minister in your church might deem it to be.” He closed the book and laid it on her lap, let his hand rest there.

‘She searched his face. There was a new aspect to it, a tremble of the lips, a feverish gleam to his silver eyes. She let herself float for a moment, existing in nothing other than his steady gaze and feeling more than ever that she might confide in him.’

It’s in relation to the control-seeking doctor that Horsley uses her heroine (who is at times a rather cliched 'fragile yet feisty' type) to greatest effect, contrasting Frankenstein's denial of death's inevitability with Oona's pained yet hopeful acceptance of her fate:

'she would be dead soon. There was so much she did not know. She would die far too young, as Victor's mother had and her own mother too. She had not even felt those ordinary things: cradling a baby; kissing and being kissed. Before now, she had never thought of wanting them. For the first time she knew that she must not let her life be swallowed untasted.'

Such careful re-positioning and re-focusing of themes demonstrates the value of a novel like this. By creating a new perspective, Horsley can use the hook of an infamous story to drill down into its themes, opening them out in ways that make them resonate anew for her audience. Moreover, like Rhys before her, she can bestow agency upon a previously passive character, placing a victim into the foreground, where she cannot simply be overlooked as a mere plot device. We know where Victor and his monster are headed; we don’t need a climax to their story. It’s Oona, with her sad, resigned yet determined attitude to life and death, who retains our focus and our sympathy throughout and who allows her creator to draw something new from this oh-so-well-known of stories.

The Monster’s Wife is a strong entry to the shortlist. It’s elegant yet gory, pacy yet meditative. Not to mention that, in the era of fan-fiction, remixing and zombie-centric re-workings of Jane Austen, it is a shining example of a sensitive, clever, imaginative response to a classic text, which works on its own merits as well as re-illuminating those of its predecessor. It’s also a lot of fun which, despite not always being considered a literary necessity, makes this not only stylish and intelligent but engaging and entertaining to boot.

(Opinions are all my own and do not reflect the views of the Saltire Society Panel.)