Booker 2019: Frankissstein

29th August 2019

Frankissstein by Jeanette Winterson

Jonathan Cape

Reviewed by Jill Glenn

We begin in the summer of 1816, in a rented house on the shores of Lake Geneva, where Lord Byron and his doctor, John Polidori, are spending a few weeks. Staying in another property nearby are 18 year old Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin, her lover and husband-to-be, Percy Shelley, and her stepsister, Claire Clairmont (who has already had an affair with Byron, back in London). The five spend much of their time together, in feverish, claustrophobic intimacy. It is unseasonably wet, and they are trapped indoors by rain in Byron’s villa for days. ‘Even the house, that we fancied was made of stone, wavered inside a heavy mist and through that mist, sometimes, a door or a window appeared like an image in a dream.’ They read, they talk, they let their imaginations run riot… and Mary begins the book that will become Frankenstein, published first anonymously in 1818, and then in 1823 under the name by which history knows her: Mary Shelley.

Her tale of a doctor who tries to creates a monster by accident, in an attempt to make a living person out of dead ones, poses questions that still resonate today: can a creature without a soul live? What is the distinction between a madman and a visionary? What is the danger of ambition? What, really, is love?

In a clever, nuanced tribute to Shelley’s themes, Winterson asks similar questions and pushes the boundaries of the possible even further; this is the 21st century after all. Her ability to take a concept or two, hold them up to the light and shoot them through with something angled and original is as impressive here as always.

There’s a wonderful energy in this bold, imaginative novel. Frankissstein, with its tiny subtitle A Love Story (printed vertically down the last ‘i’ of Stein), is both a radical reinterpretation of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and a work that stands tall in its own right. You don’t need to have read the old to enjoy the new, although given the far-reaching influence of the earlier story, it’s unlikely that there will be many readers who don’t have at least a basic knowledge.

All the characters who were together in that summer in Switzerland resurface in Winterson’s world, 200 years later. There’s Dr Ry Shelley, a transgender medic who began life as a woman, and now ‘lives with doubleness’; there’s Ron Lord, a sexbot salesman with entrepreneurial ambition, a glorious turn of phrase and no idea when to stop talking; there’s an African American evangelical Christian called Claire, and an investigative journalist called Polly D. And, of course, there’s Dr Victor Stein, a celebrated professor leading the public debate around AI, whose relationship with Ry Shelley strays into some seriously unprofessional territory. They’re all looking for love, in their own particular ways.

As unlikely a set-up as it may seem, Frankissstein nevertheless arises out of many of the themes that have preoccupied Winterson since the publication of her semi-autobiographical novel, Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit, in 1985. She has frequently explored the liminal territories of gender identity and sexual politics, of the interplay between lust and love, and of the relationship between imagination and physicality. A mash-up of Artificial Intelligence, cryonics, transgender identities and sex robots is, really, the logical next step. And bolting it on to the sorry story of Mary Shelley is inspired. Rooting it in a real life, albeit 200 years ago, creates what feels like a sanctuary within a crazy contemporary world that – bizarre and outlandish as it is – is all too recognisable.

Mad conceits like digitising the contents of the human brain, or getting all your emotional nourishment and physical care from robots… really, they’re only just around the corner. It’s a comfort to return to Mary, whose grief at the death of her babies, one after another, reminds us what it is to be human.

As demanding and cerebral as Frankissstein is, it is also a very easy read, and surprisingly funny; excruciatingly funny in parts. Winterson has a powerful sense of whimsy, and a true narrative voice. Her prose is addictive. In this, her eleventh novel, she has created a space in which ideas take life, flourish, entertain and perplex. Frankissstein navigates perfectly the fine line between intellectual challenge and pure pleasure.

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