Book Review: ‘Frankenstein’ by Mary Shelley

April 16, 2015 in Best Of, Book Reviews, On Writing, Reviews by pacejmiller

frankenstein

I admit I’ve been somewhat slack on my goal to read more books this year, but I’ve finally made an effort and finished a classic I had been meaning to get to over the last few years: Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.

As it was first published in 1818, I was wary that the classic could be a letdown, given the way novelists wrote and the way characters spoke back in those days. There’s nothing wrong with it per se, though it does require more focus — especially in the beginning — and readers used to more modern styles could struggle getting into a flow. Madam Bovary, for example, is supposed to be one of the best books ever written from a technical perspective, and yet the experience bored me to death.

And so I am glad to report that Frankenstein was an awesome read. It’s a magnificent idea, well thought out, intricately planned and with captivating characters. While it was quite different to what I had expected, the novel’s classic status is well deserved.

Everyone knows that the story is about a young scientist, Victor Frankenstein, who develops and up session with creating life as a stepping stone towards cheating death. He successively brings The Creature to life but upon seeing the abomination he has a sudden change of mind and wants nothing to do with it. Thus begins two intertwining journeys of self-destruction, filled with pain, regret, discrimination, desire, jealousy, and above all, revenge.

The brilliance of the book lies in Shelley’s depiction of The Creature. She could have made him a zombie-like monster and typical murderous villain, but instead she infused him with a brilliant mind and a complicated heart. The agony he feels is comes across as so real that you can’t help but empathise with his unnatural existence and doomed predicament. In many ways, he is much more sympathetic than his creator, and that’s what makes it such a fascinating read.

The style of the novel also impressed me. Yes, the prose and speech do take a little bit of time to get use to because they are so exaggerated by modern standards and the vocabulary is much more precise, though once you get used to it the narrative starts flowing  downstream.

One thing I didn’t expect was the intentional lack of detail in some of the key aspects of the plot. The scene where Frankenstein brings The Creature to life, for instance, is extremely vague and bereft of specifics. You know he did something amazing, but you don’t quite know how he did it. In fact, there is almost nothing concrete about how The Creature was put together at all, and there’s also no description of his exact appearance other than that he is massive (eight feet tall), has dark hair, and is unimaginably grotesque. It leaves a lot to the imagination, something many modern writers fail to do. It also helps explain why so many movie adaptations have failed because they were forced to show things audiences would complain about no matter what.

I also had no idea that the story is told through so many layers — it’s actually a series of letters to his sister from a sailor who meets Frankenstein in the Arctic. The sailor then records Frankenstein’s story, which then recounts The Creature’s narrative as told to Frankenstein. It’s a clever device that offers three first-person perspectives in one — The Creator, The Creature, and the third party bystander.

My enjoyment of the book was helped by the fact that I didn’t really know what was going to happen. The version of the story I vaguely had in my head was the 1994 movie adaptation by Kenneth Branagh and starring Robert De Niro as The Creature. That one took some liberties with the plot, so it was a surprise to me when the novel began to take a different turn to what I was expecting. I know a lot of people hated the movie but I didn’t mind the alternative storyline.

In all, a fantastic reading experience and a good lesson for aspiring writers. Next up, Bram Stoker’s Dracula!