Come up to the lab

2009-01-21 00:00

Victor Frankenstein, a serious-minded student from Switzerland, meets the fervid poet and atheist Percy Bysshe Shelley at Oxford, and soon the two young men are deep in discussion about electrical science and natural philosophy. For Frankenstein, this widens an intellectual door he had already begun to push open: he becomes obsessed with using “the electrical fluid” to restore the dead to life. With the aid of funds from Bysshe he sets up a lab, has giant electrical storage batteries built, and starts experimenting on corpses provided by the grave robbers (known as “resurrection men”), whose ghastly job is to supply medical students with dissection material.

Contrary to the belief inculcated by countless Frankenstein movies, and to some extent by Mary Shelley’s (Bysshe’s second wife) original novel, the young scientist does not aspire to build a superman: the being he finally succeeds in reanimating is no meccano set of choice human components, but simply a nice young chap Frankenstein knows, who had not deserved to have his life cut short.

Alas. “The creature”, as Frankenstein calls him, has not been restored to normality, but has acquired an inhuman energy which, married to a black hatred of his “saviour” for dragging him back to life, causes him to perform astounding feats and acts of the worst possible malignity, obliquely targeting Frankenstein by attacking his dearest friends.

Presented as a record kept by Frankenstein himself, elegantly yet easily written in the style of the period, with the scientific arguments and language authentic and assured, this chilling narrative keeps one riveted to the startling last page. Besides being an award-winning novelist, Peter Ackroyd is, of course, also a poet, biographer and historian, as well as the author of the acclaimed London: The Biography and Thames: Sacred River. No one is better equipped to know and understand the time or to get inside the passionate heart and mind of a brilliant young man to whom nothing seemed impossible. As with Sherlock Holmes, many of us feel that although the story of Frankenstein was conceived by Mary Shelley, it must somehow have been based on fact. Perhaps there’s something of the Frankenstein in Ackroyd, too, for in this brilliantly imagined book Frankenstein lives. A tour de force.

Stephanie Alexander

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