This review contains unavoidable spoilers.
I had a wish as I was reading Frankissstein by Jeanette Winterson, but I should have known better. So in love was I with the characters, with Winterson's clever writing and with the way non-fiction was so expertly interwoven with the fiction, that I hoped her stories would stay in the real world. As I said to my flatmate "There's enough horror here as is."
I should have known better. When you're reading a novel that reimagines Frankenstein, arguably the first science fiction book ever written, you're going to wind up with a monster.
This wonderfully pacey and playful novel tells two stories (at least!) of the doomed Doctor Frankenstein. These stories exist, somewhat puzzlingly, in the same universe. One story follows the story of author Mary Shelley, who at 18 is possessed by her vision of Frankenstein's folly while spending a wet season in Switzerland in the company of the young Romantics. Jeanette Winterson's beautifully poetic prose bring to life narrator Mary Shelley, her husband the poet Percy Shelley, the larger than life Lord Byron, his physician John Polidori and Mary's stepsister Claire, who is Byron's lover.
The second story centers around young transgender Doctor Ry (formerly Mary) Shelley and their lover Victor Stein, who is "leading the conversation around AI". There's a modern take on Byron, the wonderfully awful sex bot mogul Ron Lord, and even a second Claire (who, according to one of our narrators, has nothing to say), stereotypically reimagined as a contrary black evangelical Christian. Polidori becomes sassy journalist Polly and Percy's probably in there too, but I didn't recognise him.
I'm not sure why we needed our modern narrator to be called Ry Shelley and I especially don't know why we need to have Ry telling modern-day Claire that Frankenstein had just had its 200 year anniversary. The klaxons rang in my head "RY! Think of your lover's name and run away!". I would have preferred we got a Wizard of Oz-style character reboot. A show not a tell. But then, I'm fussy and I want to believe.
My sense was that we didn't need The Monster to get the full horror of the original story. The state of modern AI is sufficiently fascinating and terrifying. A wonderful scene, set at a tech expo, painted a very striking picture. After a sex bot presentation the men and women divide; the men racing to swarm the sex bot, the women gathering with stricken faces. Unsurprisingly, strong themes emerge around bodily autonomy and identity, the horror of industrialism and the subjugation of women.
Doctor Ry, in particular, felt too vibrant and real to exist in the same universe as Mary Shelley, the author. It's not really a spoiler to say that the character of the present day Mr Stein is a sad victim to his namesake. I couldn't help but think that this was doubly true; the character loses his believability as he takes a swan dive into his pathos (Daenerys?). I kept thinking his parents should have given him a less predictive name.
I seriously enjoyed the book, despite its occasional silliness. The wordplay is excellent, with satisfying call backs throughout the text. There was humour and heart and anguish and I was totally gripped as I hoped for a grounded ending. I did not get this, but I had a blast, devoured it and then wondered what I had read.