The Merciful Women

Originally published in June 2004, on my original 52 Books blog.

Original Spanish title: Las Piadosas
Author: Federico Andahazi
Translator: Albert Manguel
Year published: 1998 (original), 2000 (translation)
Genres: Fantasy, gothic horror

Where got: Public library

The story:
In the wet summer of 1816, five people arrive at the Villa Diodati on the shores of Lake Leman: Lord Byron, Percy Shelley, Mary Godwin and her stepsister, Claire Clairmont, and John Polidori, Byron’s secretary. Upon arriving, Polidori finds a mysterious letter in his room, written by a monster who proposes a deal with him: something of his in exchange for literary fame. Polidori, who has suffered much humiliation at the hands of his employer, accepts the deal, but not before further humiliations and events that convince the others that he is going mad.

Technique and plot:
The translation is fluid and beautifully done and the book comes across as if it had been written in English. The style is reminiscent of Poe and Lovecraft, and the “monster” is indeed something that Lovecraft could have created. The mixture of third person narrative with the first person epistolatory form gives a nicely balanced account of, on the one hand, Polidori’s despair and irrationality in the company of those so much more accomplished than himself, and on the other, Annette Legrand’s story which is full of horror and strange self-satisfaction. The narrative is darkly humorous, grotesque, cheeky and disrespectful of the main character’s literary and personal aspirations. Andahazi is not kind to his poor protagonist!

I loved the ending, which is something of a twist and would advise anyone who habitually peeks at the ending of books to resist the urge with this one, at least if there is any intention of reading it. But of course the ending isn’t funny unless you have read the entire book...

I have always had problems with authors seizing historical characters and writing novels about them - why can’t they invent their own characters? For example, I hated Brian Aldiss’ Frankenstein Unbound where he writes about the fantasy of fucking Mary Shelley, but I did find this story rather good, perhaps because it is about a person who is more of a footnote in literary history than any kind of contender for real literary immortality (he did write what has been acknowledged to be the first vampire novel, but it isn’t very good).

Rating:
A dark and cheeky vampire story with a difference. 4 stars.

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