In the lead up to Halloween, Jen Campbell reviews two novels for TOAST Book Club. Both explore the characters of Frankenstein and his monster.
I wonder if you know that when Turing first used the word, the term, computer he wasn't referring to a machine at all but to a person. The person would be the computer'
Jeanette Winterson's novel Frankissstein opens in 1816. Mary Shelley is roaming the hillside, exploring the world in wonder, much like Frankenstein's monster a character she's yet to write. She's naked, as if she is the only person on Earth. She notes: My skin is covered in beads of clear water as though I have been embroidered with water.'
And thus begins this fluid novel, where characters and stories bleed into one another, are stitched through the centuries. Reality is water-soluble,' Mary states. Time is a painting. Later, her husband Percy Shelley concurs: We are like the drowned,' he says. We are all shipwrecked stories. But who came first: the teller or the tale?
Katie Hale's debut novel My Name is Monster opens with a shipwreck. Monster has fled Svalbard's Global Seed Vault, where she worked before the Sickness, before the War, maintaining Earth's back up plan: a collection of more than 980,000 seeds, originating from almost every country in the world. Now she has landed in a Scotland empty of humans, heading for home, whatever that may mean. She knows she cannot save the world, but she can try to save herself. She plants this new world back into herself. She evolves. She survives.
Both of these novels centre on the time-old question: what makes us human? Frankissstein is split into two main narratives. The first of these is about Mary and Percy Shelley, the second is set in the present day and focuses on Ry, a young transgender doctor who has fallen in love with Victor Stein, a professor leading the public debate around AI. The modern-day scenes, set mostly at a sexbot convention, tiptoe a little into the ridiculous but, at its heart, this book shines.
In a nineteenth century section, Byron declares he is an atheist and does not believe in life after death: We are haunted by ourselves, he says, and that is enough for any man.' And so the characters of this novel haunt each other: Ry (Mary) meets Ron Lord (Lord Byron), Victor Stein is a mixture of both Percy Shelley and Victor Frankenstein, and Mary's stepsister Claire appears several times, in many different skins almost as the novel says as a bookmark.
History repeats itself, the characters reincarnate, existing in different bodies (both human and text), and they flit around the universe. Those who have read Winterson's novel The Stone Gods will notice that the characters of that book seem to be haunting this one, too. This ghosting, this repetition, illustrates how humans keep asking the same questions, writing the same stories, falling in love and making the same mistakes, fluidly. The world relies on its beacons to stop everyone crashing against the rocks. Beacons in the form of Mary Shelley and Ry, who have something of a lighthouse keeper in [them]'.
My Name is Monster is also split into two narratives: Monster and Mother. It's about gifting speech, creating truths and controlling them. Monster gives her own name to a feral child, renaming herself Mother, and the new Monster marvels at the packaging of the language handed down to her. I thought about [words] only as rucksacks,' she says, to carry the meaning of what I wanted to say.' She thought the same about bodies, before she connected with the human inside them. She thought the same of the earth, too, before she learned how it spoke. I can shout and shout at the snow,' she says. But I cannot make it talk back to me.'
Then one day Monster climbs a mountain and experiences the Sublime. She feels human, vulnerable, connected. Like Percy Shelley's poem Mont Blanc, she appreciates the contents of silence: And what were thou, and earth, and stars, and sea, / If to the human mind's imaginings / Silence and solitude were vacancy?' Gradually, both Mother and Monster learn how to live in the in between spaces. In the gaps between language and meaning.
Frankissstein and My Name is Monster have the same genetic code. These two novels, these daughters of Frankenstein, about motherhood and creation, about bodies and God-reaching, are wonderful to read side by side. Together they stretch back in time, and forward again. They pause every so often to unearth the stories. To plant new ones. To mutate.
They read us back to life.
This book club review was written by the author and poet Jen Campbell, whose latest book is The Girl Aquarium. Please let us know your thoughts on Frankissstein by Jeanette Winterson and My Name is Monster by Katie Hale and we will enter you into a prize draw to receive a copy of our next book, A Lab of One's Own by Patricia Fara.