Unapologetically creative: in search of Mary Shelley in Fiona Sampson’s new biography

To mark the 200th anniversary of the publication of Frankenstein, Fiona Sampson sets out to understand the experiences that shaped the mind behind the first science-fiction novel.

The Girl Who Wrote Frankenstein

I was so excited to read a biography of Mary Shelley. I first read Frankenstein and The Last Man while at university, and fell completely in love with Shelley’s exquisite writing, complex ideas, and boundless imagination. And yet I knew next to nothing about the woman herself, beyond how she seemed to be defined by her relationship to those around her: daughter of Mary Wollstonecraft and William Godwin, friend to Lord Byron, wife to Percy Bysshe Shelley. So my expectations soared when I read in Sampson’s introduction that she hoped to “hugely enlarge” Mary, and bring her into the foreground, so that she might be understood on her own terms.

I enjoyed the biography immensely, it’s beautifully written, well researched, and tangibly evokes the lives of those it considers. But I’m not quite sure that Sampson achieves what she claims she will in her introduction.

Sampson structures the biography around a series of imaginatively detailed vignettes, such as Mary’s birth, or sitting around the fire telling the ghost story that would become Frankenstein. Sampson is open about this structure, calling her work “a freeze-frame biography” (loc 110). She’s also explicit about its potential drawbacks, acknowledging that the vitality of a person cannot truly be understood through a series of stills. Each of these scenes is atmospheric, often intensely visceral, the details almost tangible. Of the elopement of Mary and Percy, Sampson writes: “In the next scene she lies exhausted by seasickness and fear on board a small wooden sailing vessel. The boat is being dwarfed by storm waves that swell under and around it in the moonlight. The time is just before midnight…” (loc 1132-35). But the evocation almost undermines the reality — we have to consciously remind ourselves that we’re not reading a novel, we’re reading a biography.

This freeze-frame structure also means that Sampson picks and chooses the scenes from Mary’s life that most interest her, or that have been deemed most significant by posterity. Of course, biographies are inevitably an exercise in gap-filling; as Hermione Lee writes, “Biographers try to make a coherent narrative out of missing documents as well as existing ones; a whole figure out of body parts.” (Body Parts, p.8). But as a result of all this picking and choosing, I felt Mary Shelley’s voice was marginalised in favour of Sampson’s.

Sampson chooses to focus predominantly on the beginning of Mary’s life. She is aware, again, of the pitfalls of her approach, talking of the potential of “foreshortening”: “the later years of a life — of anyone’s life — do not build a personality, and they don’t go on to affect a future. They are that future. Frankenstein is not unconnected to what comes after it in Mary’s life. On the contrary, it changed her life just as it has changed our cultural imagination. But that’s the thing: Mary’s first novel informs her future; her last does not inform her past” (loc 118). As such, Sampson’s biography spends one single chapter on Mary’s later life (essentially after the death of Percy Shelley). But if we’re “in search” of “the girl who wrote Frankenstein“, isn’t it also valuable to be in search of the woman whose life was informed by the creation of Frankenstein?

The freeze-frame structure also means that time is telescoped. In the first “scene”, before Mary is even born, we have flashed back to examine her parents’ relationship, and flashed forward through the first 10 years of Mary’s life. Perhaps this lack of chronological integrity helps to explain Sampson’s proleptic tendencies: “In the next fourteen months, shockingly, Mary is going to lose both her surviving children…But that’s in the future. For now the party are making fairly rapid progress through France…” (loc 2592-2598). It is unclear to me if such moments were for dramatic effect. They certainly result in jolting the reader out of their immersion in the story. Perhaps Sampson is acknowledging that the form of biography is inherently proleptic. Even if we do not know the details, we know that in the coming pages, Mary will write Frankenstein, she will be widowed, and will eventually die.

Mary Shelley
Richard Rothwell’s portrait of Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, 1840 (National Portrait Gallery)

Playing with time is just one of the creative liberties Sampson takes with the past. The Mary Shelley of In Search of Mary Shelley feels very much like a construction by someone other than Mary herself. In this narrative, Mary is cast as heroine, her father, husband, and step-sister as unsympathetic villains. Sampson asserts that “Claire…will never once express a whisper of guilt or regret” (loc 2678-80). Talking of Mary’s letters to Percy, Sampson writes of Mary’s self-conscious manipulation of her letters, which are designed to “win” “masculine approval” by “not being intelligent” (loc 1555). One can’t help wondering how we can know for sure. How can we know Claire never spoke an apology to Mary? How can we know for sure that Mary’s letters were manipulative rather than genuine? While Sampson’s position as biographer is one of supreme (if unfounded) authority, she does also occasionally invite readers in to hypothesise with her. Of Godwin’s response to Mary’s birth she writes, “Time stretches out. One imagines a clock ticking. It is the wolf hour. Does he feel tired? Or is he wired by adrenalin? Does he long for a coffee?” (loc 274-279). However, these moments of acknowledged uncertainty are anomalous.

I struggle, too, with the difficulty of liberating Mary from being defined by other people. Sampson fails to pay great attention to Mary outside of her relationship with Percy. Life after his death is at once judged and defended by Sampson as a “slip” into “domestic comfort” and “an end to intellectual and creative stamina” (loc 3800). The BBC Radio Four Book of the Week adaptation of In Search of Mary Shelley is perhaps an illustration of this (although it is worth remembering that Sampson was not responsible for the abridgement). Three out of the five episodes are about Mary’s life while she was in a relationship with Percy. The first episode is about her childhood, and the last episode is about life after Percy’s death. This is despite the fact that 45 years out of Mary’s 53 were spent not in a relationship with Percy. Even that final episode is about Mary’s work editing and publishing Percy’s writing. And this is the problem: it’s difficult to “liberate” Mary from Percy because she defined herself by him, perpetually “chained”, as it were, to him, as Percy wrote of monogamy in his poem ‘Epipsychidion’ (which is, of course, addressed to a woman other than Mary). I agree with Sampson when she writes of the portrait we have of Mary, “The black velvet Mary wears to sit for her Rothwell portrait, seventeen years after Percy’s death, is a statement not only of her grief but also of her continuing identity as Percy’s widow” (loc 3424-3425). And let’s not forget after he died she kept his heart for the rest of her life. It seems Mary would rather actively define herself by her relationship to someone else, than passively be subject to our desires to isolate and examine her.

I think the problem is that the portrait feels so curated, with such imaginative painting of scenes, sections of life removed and glossed over, that it does not feel authentic. That’s not to say this is not a valuable exercise, but the result is more evocative than it is informative, and may offer as much insight into Sampson as it does to Mary Shelley. Sampson’s tendency to assert certainty where there is none means that no matter how well researched, In Search of Mary Shelley feels more of a creative exercise than an academic one. This saddens me, because I agreed so whole-heartedly with Sampson’s assessment in her introduction that “Mary does not need fictionalising. She deserves better than imaginative reconstruction: she deserves to be listened to” (loc 86). Perhaps Sampson has listened to Mary Shelley. It’s simply that each of us in listening to the same person will interpret the facts in their own individual way.

Sometimes the expectations you bring to a text define it far more rigidly than the text deserves. Remember James Thurber’s story about the woman who reads Macbeth as a murder mystery? I came to this, quite simply, hoping to learn more about Mary Shelley. I find myself unable to be sure of whether that expectation has been fulfilled. I know a few more facts of her life, and those of the people she encountered. I know a little more about life in the 19th century. But I am reluctant to trust in the character Sampson has created. My ideal biography would probably be extracts from letters and novels with heavily footnoted commentary. It might be quite dry. But I’d at least know what I was reading was attempting authenticity. This isn’t that type of biography, but Sampson doesn’t apologise for that, and while I was frustrated by In Search of Mary Shelley, I can’t help but admire its brilliance.

Favourite quotation:
“If we can think of Mary’s life as a series of portraits, this one is nothing like a painting fixed in oils. It reminds me of the flicker of a video installation: the grainy black-and-white bleached by wilful exposure into near-invisibility, its jerkiness reproducing the apprentice technologies of the very earliest films. We can barely distinguish between the figures themselves and the markings of the wall on to which they’re projected. Nothing is certain; everything keeps changing.” (loc 1509-1515)

Fiona Sampson, In Search of Mary Shelley: The Girl who wrote Frankenstein (Profile Books, 2018)

Thank you to Fiona Sampson and Profile Books via NetGalley for an ARC in exchange for an honest review.


Worthy and unsettling successor to a classic: Dr Jekyll and Mr Seek

Gabriel Utterson witnessed the downfall and death of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde seven years ago. When a man claiming to be Jekyll arrives in London, Utterson’s life is turned upside down. Everything from his inheritance to his sanity is threatened by Jekyll’s apparent return from the dead. Utterson sets out to find the truth: “If he be Mr Hyde, I shall be Mr Seek.”

Anthony O'Neill Dr Jekyll and Mr Seek

I often get quite protective of my favourite novels when they are rewritten by contemporary authors. P. D. James’s “sequel” to Pride and Prejudice — Pemberley —for instance, is a fun but slightly incongruous return to characters I know and love. It’s enjoyable, but not something I’d ever consider a true successor to the original. Dr Jekyll and Mr Seek, however, not only convincingly reimagines Stevenson’s novel, but it does so in such a way that expands on and enhances the original. A dialogue is established between the two, so that each enriches the other.

O’Neill’s writing puts us very convincingly in the world of Victorian London. Everything from the setting, style, and even narrative structure is reminiscent of Stevenson. The novel starts as a Gothic romp in Victorian London (with a jaunt to Edinburgh, Stevenson’s hometown, which I particularly appreciated). But it quickly unravels. As Utterson fights to prove the new Jekyll is an impostor, he is assailed by doubts. The Gothic romp becomes a deeply unsettling portrayal of a deteriorating mind; a study of madness and obsession.

Since Utterson can’t tell if he can trust anyone, including himself, he becomes an unreliable narrator. The readers are left not knowing what is real and what is not. This is particularly effective as any so-called “liberties” taken with the original novella can be undermined depending on which version of the facts you choose to believe. Nothing is certain.

A only 133 pages, you race through it, barely able to pause for breath. A dark and discomforting tribute to Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, this is also an excellent read in its own right.

Favourite quotation: “Hyde is concealed deep within Dr Jekyll, and safely imprisoned at that. He is a scoundrel and a malefactor, true, but no more evil or dangerous than all the other scoundrels and malefactors that today lie hidden in this very court. For whom among you does not harbour his own Mr Hyde?…Who does not daily, hourly, suppress the urges of his horrible Hyde?…[W]hile you have every reason to deliver a verdict on Mr Hyde, you can no more condemn Dr Jekyll than you can condemn yourselves. We are all Jekylls, yea, but equally we are all Hydes.” (loc 769-781)

Anthony O’Neill, Dr Jekyll and Mr Seek (Black & White Publishing, 2017)

Thank you to Anthony O’Neill and Black & White Publishing via NetGalley for a copy in an exchange for an honest review.


The ultimate surveillance nightmare – Broadcast by Liam Brown

David is a vlogger, and has found fame telling millions of followers about the intricacies of his ordinary life. He keeps nothing from his adoring public. Then MindCast offer him the opportunity to broadcast his thoughts 24 hours a day. A small operation, a tiny chip in his brain, and he will be the most famous person on the planet. How could he say no?

Broadcast by Liam Brown.jpg

Broadcast is a fast-paced and intriguing exploration of the dangers of our social media-obsessed society. The world Brown describes is just one small step away from our own. In fact, MindCast is the next logical step in our social media journey — not even a short step away, but a shortcut to instant gratification.

I loved this most when it was talking about the philosophy of surveillance and celebrity culture, especially the celebrity of the everyday. The consequences of the chip, such as David not being able to use passwords and PINs, not even being able to think negatively about a restaurant without risking being sued, are extremely well thought-out. The anxiety this provokes is hugely convincing.

A number of reviews I’ve read have focused on how unsympathetic David is. While he’s certainly not someone I can immediately imagine being friends with, I didn’t find this in any way a barrier to my enjoyment of the novel. David’s character — vapid, self-obsessed, often thoughtless — was believable if not likeable. He barely thinks about the consequences of having the chip implanted: the decision is made apparently on a whim, spurred on by his competitive nature and desire for fame, but this was completely in-line with his character.

The last quarter of the novel is more dramatic and action-based, which I personally found less appealing. I wish too, that Alice’s role and character in the latter part of the novel had been explored further. That said the ending is tremendously unsettling and a worthy conclusion to well-executed book with a fascinating concept.

Liam Brown, Broadcast (Legend Press, 2017)

Thank you to Liam Brown and Legend Press via NetGalley for an ARC in exchange for an honest review.

Magic ordinary and extraordinary: The Toy Makers by Robert Dinsdale

Cathy Wray, 15 years old and newly pregnant. Fearful of losing her baby, she runs away from her family, responding to a job advert in the newspaper: “Are you lost? Are you afraid? Are you a child at heart?” This is Cathy’s introduction to Papa Jack’s Emporium, a place where lost souls gather to experience the spectacular magic of Papa Jack’s toys. She meets the intimidating Papa Jack, the charismatic Kaspar, and his long-suffering brother, Emil. We follow their fortunes over the course of 50 years: births, marriages, war, bankruptcy, and magic.

The Toy Makers Robert Dinsdale
Cover by the hugely talented Laura Barrett

Despite the fact the story covers such a long period of time, the plot never stumbles. Hours passed as I was reading without me realising, and even when it reached the small hours of the morning, I could not stop. I wish I could put my finger on what makes this book so brilliant. The writing is gorgeous, vivid, and visual. The narrator often acts as a guide, inviting us in to explore the labyrinth of the emporium, the minds of the characters. It seems redundant to say the characters are well developed. They weren’t characters to me. They were real people, with all the hopes and dreams, fears and foibles of real people. I shared in their pain, their uncertainties, their unexpected joys.

Robert Dinsdale’s story-telling has a peculiar magic. Reading his writing it is as though the words fade away to reveal the scenes he describes, played out in front of you. Inanimate toys are wound up, and they stand to attention. But what is this peculiar magic that makes toys act beyond the expectations of their mechanisms? The magic that makes Dinsdale’s words reach out, take your hand, and drag you along with the story? It feels like his writing, just like his toy soldiers, is alive.

The book succeeds because its foundation is a study of human life, and watching four generations of a family succeed and fail. It’s also a book about nostalgia, sentimental but never mawkish. It’s about how toys can make us feel like children again, and the trials of one family trying to bring some joy into a troubled world. But it’s also about magic. The ordinary magic of love and hope, and the extraordinary magic of what might happen if, just if, a toy were to one day come to life.

Favourite quotation, the wisdom of Papa Jack:
“But can a toy come to life? My dear…it isn’t foolish at all. All of the magic, all of the love we pour into them. I should think the only foolish thing is to wonder why it doesn’t happen all of the time.”

Robert Dinsdale, The Toy Makers (Penguin Random House, 2018)

Thank you to Robert Dinsdale and Penguin Random House via NetGalley for an advance copy in exchange for an honest review.

Gamification of the library experience: Escape from Mr Lemoncello’s Library

“Knowledge not shared remains unknown.” – Luigi L. Lemoncello

Mr Luigi Lemoncello, the world’s most famous gamemaker, has completely redesigned Kyle Keeley’s local library. When Kyle and his friends are invited to an exclusive sleepover before the library opens, they find they have to solve Mr Lemoncello’s ultimate puzzle: how can they escape the library, using only the resources inside it?

Escape from Mr Lemoncello's Library

I was fairly sure I’d like this book just on learning the title. After reading the first few chapters, I was certain I would love it. I am the kind of person who will read a book just because it has “library”, or “bookshop”, or “museum” in the title. So I hadn’t initially realised it was written for children (ages 8-12) until I went hunting for it at my local library (appropriately enough). But it being a children’s book wasn’t going to put me off—I’d just discovered the Artemis Fowl books for the first time, and had read them obsessively. I get rather cross when people talk about being “too old” to read a certain book.

And how glad I am I found it, nestling among the low-hanging books of the children’s bookshelves. This book has everything. A tightly plotted adventure, literary references galore, outrageous puns, and a healthy does of parable-type moralising. It even has a few irresistible puzzles for the reader. Above all it’s a love letter to libraries and the power of stories and knowledge.

For adults, it’s a fun afternoon read to make us fall in love with reading again. For children, it’s a must for encouraging them to read books and visit their library. Although they might be disappointed if it doesn’t contain a holographic tiger—I’m certainly hoping my local library will be installing a Book Nook Café soon.

Favourite quotation: “A library doesn’t need windows, Andrew. We have books, which are windows into worlds we never even dreamed possible.”

Chris Grabenstein, Escape from Mr Lemoncello’s Library (Yearling, 2014)

Immersive and convincing historical fiction: A Pearl for My Mistress by Annabel Fielding


Both Hester and Sophie are trying to escape. Hester dreams of travelling. She has left her family and her home, abandoning her working class vocabulary and Northern accent to become the perfect lady’s maid. Sophie longs for independence, to free herself from the rigid shackles of her aristocratic upbringing. In trying to escape, they find each other. But it’s 1934 in England, so can their relationship survive the threat of war, financial instability, and slander?

A Pearl for My Mistress Annabel Fielding.jpg

When I began this book I imagined it would be an easy read; your average romantic novel. How wrong I was. This book is so much more than a love story. Yes, the pace nips along nicely and the story is totally immersive, but the historical context adds great depth and intrigue, and the prose is beautiful, elegant, and expressive.

This book is not merely set against a backdrop of the 1930s, but is completely immersed in the time. Fielding’s writing is so evocative that it’s easy to imagine every last detail of life in 1930s England. A Pearl for My Mistress is clearly thoroughly researched, and the historical context is effortlessly intertwined with the plot. Fictional narrative merges with real-life events and characters, moving seamlessly from intricate details of high society life and working class drudgery to broader political themes. While the details are intricate and informed, they never overpower the story. The political climate of the era is profoundly complex, and so the book benefitted from a range of viewpoints. I imagine Lucy, given her support of the Blackshirts, is a somewhat divisive character, but her motivations are perfectly justified, even, at times, sympathetic.

My only gripes were very minor—the commitment to telling the story in the voice of both Hester and Lucy meant some immersion was lost when they were together and the reader had to jump between the two perspectives. I was sad, too, that Hester faded a little into the background towards the last third of the novel.

There’s so much to love about this book: the vividly described historical context, the convincingly flawed characters, the sensual, sentimental, and oh so relatable descriptions of love (which Fielding describes beautifully as like “velvet”). I also loved Fielding’s descriptions of writing and reading, and the power of words and legends to inspire and even control. Fielding’s passion for the era and for the writing process itself is infectious. This is no simple romance, but a story about misplaced trust, self-destructive behaviour, and how characters can survive and thrive against manipulation on a personal and political scale.

Favourite quotation: “Lucy Fitzmartin lay in the darkness, feeling absolutely no inclination to sleep. Her mind was ablaze with stories, with thoughts, with possibilities. She could feel the spectres of a thousand plots at her fingertips. Words flared up in her head, colliding and intertwining with one another, forming sentences and paragraphs of the stories yet to be written. Now she had someone to read them.”

Annabel Fielding, A Pearl for My Mistress (HQ Digital, 2017)

Thank you to Annabel Fielding and HQ Digital for a copy in exchange for an honest review.

The Alphabet of Heart’s Desire by Brian Keaney

I loved the concept of this. Take one unexplained event from the life of a literary genius, add a splash of fact and a generous dose of fiction, and bake, until the resulting mix has increased in size and scope a hundred times over. The Alphabet of Heart’s Desire follows three disparate characters and their intertwining lives in early 19th-century London. Tuah, an ex-slave; Anne, a prostitute; and a young Thomas de Quincey. Weaving through the story, dealing out pleasure and pain in equal measure, is the ominous presence of opium.

Brian Keaney The Alphabet of Heart's Desire

I was really excited to read this, having been introduced to Thomas de Quincey’s work while at university. I haven’t read ‘Confessions of an English Opium-Eater’ (which inspired this novel), but I loved his morbid satirical essay ‘On Murder Considered as one of the Fine Arts’. In preparation for this I tried to look up my study notes, but all I could find was an elusive reference to it in an essay on the poetry of Browning. Disappointing for me now, but no doubt at the time I thought my passing reference was very witty and intellectual.

The narrative is told from the perspective of each of the three main characters. Each character has an individual, if slightly contrived, voice. Tuah’s speech is peppered with the Bible verses introduced to him by the ship captain who taught him to speak English. Anne’s speech is full of the grammatical idiosyncracies one might expect from your run-of-the-mill 19th-century street urchin. She is a street urchin with learning, however, and every word that might be considered too erudite for her is italicised. I found this a little distracting, but I think it emphasises that however much she may learn the ways of the upper classes, she will never leave behind her impoverished roots. While Thomas might use those words naturally, for her they come from a world beyond her own. She cannot forget it, and neither can we.

The characters themselves are well developed, and while they do give a cross section of 19th-century society, they do not feel stereotyped. By far my favouite character was Archie, whose philosophy and wit were sunshine among the clouds. I thoroughly enjoyed his conversation with Tuah about reading having “cured” him of his hunchback. Seeing Tuah’s puzzlement, he responds, “You are tempted to point out that it is still there…Literature is the great leveller…for when I read I stand as straight and true as any man.”

The writing is good and often wryly funny, although I was rarely completely absorbed by it. The highlights are certainly the descriptions of early 19th-century life in London. Particularly the more unpleasant aspects. Racism, child sex, rape, torture. Keaney certainly doesn’t shy away from describing these in vivid, macabre detail, confronting the reader with the gritty reality we are often all too happy to ignore.

For me, the pacing felt a little off. I enjoyed exploring the backstories of each of these characters, but wasn’t fully invested until Thomas and Anne finally meet. It was a shame not to spend more time with this and the fall-out of their relationship. Since the consequences of this are not explored, the ending comes abruptly and is a little anti-climactic.

An enjoyable read for fans of literary historical fiction but this didn’t quite live up to my expectations.

Favourite quotation: “he lay down flat with his ear to the ground and listened. At first it was no more than a whisper, like the sound of the wind breathing through the sedge beside some ancient and forever sunless sea. But gradually the murmur grew and Thomas knew it then for what it was: the footsteps of all those who had ever walked, or ever would walk upon the face of the earth. He listened harder, knowing there was a meaning in those endlessly changing patterns, if only he could understand it.”

Brian Keaney, The Alphabet of Heart’s Desire (Holland House, 2017)

Thank you to Brian Keaney and Holland House via NetGalley for an advance copy in exchange for an honest review.

Mind-altering and vocabulary-expanding: Nick Harkaway’s Gnomon

When Diana Hunter dies during interrogation, Mielikki Neith is charged with uncovering what happened. When Neith opens the record of interrogation, she expects to be able to experience Hunter’s consciousness essentially as if it were her own. A routine investigation. But inside Diana’s mind she finds four others, none of which should be there.  

Gnomon by Nick Harkaway.jpg

Of all the novels I’ve read this year, Gnomon is by far the most ambitious, conceptually and stylistically. Nick Harkaway is surely the intellectual love-child of M.C. Escher and Umberto Eco.

I find it nearly impossible to describe Gnomon. It’s a thriller, a mystery, dystopian (or utopian?), literary, verging in moments on academic. It’s the story of a society governed by The System, where everything from your neighbours to your washing machine monitors and reports you. It’s the story of a woman, Neith, an inspector. It’s the story of Diana Hunter, novelist, rebel, victim. No, it’s the story of both of these, and an Ethiopian retired-artist-turned-games-designer, a Roman alchemist, and a Greek banker. And a shark.

This is an important book. It’s a book about surveillance, individuality, race, free will, identity. It cannot help but deal with current political and social issues because it is a novel that, for all its magical realism, deals with the real world.

The story unfolds through various interweaving narratives (think David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas). Narration shifts through various third person and first person voices, and yet each voice is so distinct that you never have to wonder whose story you’re reading now. What are these separate narratives? Are they past lives? Are they a history of how the current society developed? Are they narratives constructed by Hunter’s dying mind?

Tension ebbs and flows, and the pace is relatively sedate, with long explorations of mythology, politics, catabasis, and steganography. Yet once you read the end of a narrative you find yourself desperate to know what happens to that character next. It’s impossible to race through this novel, not least because you have to keep pausing to look up words, and yet it’s also impossible to stop reading. Frequently I found myself emerging, gasping for air, shocked by whatever revelation and just unfolded in my mind.

Ultimately I love that the whole book could be construed as a metaphor for reading. It’s about the alchemy that occurs when someone else’s words arrive fully-formed in your brain. That magic of interpretation, ultimately of adoption, as the story you read is weaved into your own narrative, your own identity.

Gnomon makes you work hard but the payoff is beyond worth it. I cannot recommend this book highly enough.

Favourite quotation:

“[T]his is a real possible future. It’s not a nightmare, it’s a truth. It already exists in the overlap of our technologies and our fears. It only needs the right flow of events for us to act the dream and make it real. Imagine how safe it would feel to know that no one could ever commit a crime of violence and go unnoticed, ever again. Imagine what it would mean to us to know—know for certain—that the plane or the bus we’re travelling on is properly maintained, that the teacher who looks after our children doesn’t have ugly secrets. All it would cost is our privacy, and to be honest who really cares about that? What secrets would you need to keep from a mathematical construct without a heart? From a card index? Why would it matter?” (loc 3107-3113)

Nick Harkaway, Gnomon (William Heinemann, 2017)

Thank you to Nick Harkaway and William Heinemann via NetGalley for an ARC in exchange for an honest review.


The Faith of William Shakespeare by Graham Holderness

Graham Holderness examines the faith of Shakespeare’s plays and life. He offers a Protestant reading of a number of Shakespeare’s plays, utilising his extensive knowledge of Christian texts and historical context.

The Faith of William Shakespeare by Graham Holderness

It’s been well over a year since I last read a book about Shakespeare. During research for my Masters dissertation, I devoured every book about early modern theatre I could lay my hands on. After a much-needed break, it was a joy to return to Shakespeare criticism with such an accessible and informed book as The Faith of William Shakespeare.

Holderness begins by outlining the theory of the English Reformation. It’s concise and informative, an excellent breakdown of an extremely complex topic. I found myself wishing I had read this overview while studying the early modern period, and I will certainly be returning to it for a refresher course.

Holderness follows this with an analysis of faith as presented in a selection of the plays. His analysis takes the play, and the world of the play, as a whole, honing in on specific instances in which faith is explored. As he explains,
“Shakespeare’s plays are creative unities that need to be seen or read as a whole. If there is a religious vision in Shakespeare, it will be found not in isolated references and allusions scattered throughout his work, but in the overall structural design…This book takes the play as the basic unit of religious thought and feeling…”
Much of his analysis takes the form of identifying “echoes” within the play text of Protestant and Anglican religious texts. These echoes are sometimes quite vague, and sometimes very detailed. They are as often echoes of sense and philosophy as they are specifically linguistic echoes.

I particularly enjoyed his chapter on The Merchant of Venice, which investigates the presentation of Shylock. His exploration of mercy through the interaction of Portia and Shylock was especially convincing. His chapter on genre on King Lear was excellent. He rightly acknowledges that King Lear moves between Romance, fairy tale, history, and tragedy, and Holderness cleverly uses this to justify a Christian reading of the play. He ultimately claims the play’s philosophy is Calvinist, although I felt this conclusion was abruptly made with just a few paragraphs of explanation. Perhaps Holderness assumes that we read the chapter with Calvinism in mind, but bringing this in earlier would have made the conclusion more convincing. His chapter on The Winter’s Tale and The Tempest as reworkings of earlier tragedies has a huge amount of potential, but ended before being fully developed. I would have liked to read more on this.

While The Faith of William Shakespeare deals with complex ideas, it is very accessible. The book assumes the reader does not have an extensive knowledge of either the religious context or the plays themselves. Since Holderness is looking at the plays as a whole, some of his book is spent paraphrasing plots. I was concerned this might be frustrating with plays I knew particularly well, but it rarely detracted from the analysis and was useful in the plays I was less familiar with.

The Faith of William Shakespeare bucks the current trend of arguing for Shakespeare to be a Catholic or atheist, and instead sets out to prove he lived his life as a Protestant. Holderness acknowledges that the plays are a poor route to knowledge of Shakespeare’s life, but they are also the only evidence really available. Often his readings are broadly “Christian” rather than specifically Protestant (or Anglican, or Calvinist, or Lutheran), which sadly works against his “Shakespeare is a Protestant” argument. However, just because I did not end the book convinced that Shakespeare or his plays were Protestant, does not mean this was not an enlightening and interesting exploration of one of the key issues in Shakespeare criticism.

Favourite quotation: “The feather does not stir, and yet she lives, ‘a soul in bliss.’ In an agnostic or atheist reading this is the delusion of an old man desperate to keep his dead daughter alive. In a Christian reading, assured that Cordelia’s sacrificial death, like the death of Christ, has the power to ‘redeem all sorrows’, Lear may die in sure and certain hope of resurrection to eternal life. This, finally, may be the happy ending that is continually trying to get out of this bleak and nihilistic tragedy.”

Graham Holderness, The Faith of William Shakespeare (Lion Books, 2016)

Thank you to Graham Holderness and Lion Books via NetGalley for a copy in exchange for an honest review.

Fantasy with a healthy dose of reality: Court of Twilight by Mareth Griffith

Ivy is not having a good week. She’s just lost her job at the Eirecom call centre. Strange men are loitering outside her flat. And now, her reclusive, plant-obsessed flatmate has disappeared, and Ivy might be the only person who can find her.

Court of Twilight Mareth Griffith.png

Blending contemporary life with ancient mythology, Court of Twilight is an inventive fantasy novel set in modern-day Dublin. The book follows 20-year-old Ivy, newly unemployed, as she searches for her flatmate. Along the way she relearns everything she thought she knew about fairytales.

The success of Court of Twilight hinges on the characterisation of Ivy. Thankfully, Ivy is convincing and extremely relatable. She is doggedly determined, and takes everyday and otherworldly challenges in her stride. I love the blending of normality with fantasy here—Ivy is as likely to be hunting for a new job as she is hunting down fairytale life forms. There’s a grounded realism you don’t often experience in fantasy novels.

Occasionally Ivy is a bit slow on the uptake when it comes to acknowledging the magic being revealed around her. But just because I know Ivy’s in a fantasy novel, doesn’t mean she does. I expect magic around every corner, but she’s more worried about how annoyed her flatmate will be if she kills of all her plants. I loved Ivy’s relationship with her flamate, Demi. These are not sisters who have sworn to defend each other until death. They’re two people who have been thrown together by circumstance, whose friendship has slowly blossomed in spite of their various idiosyncrasies. But Ivy won’t let anything or anyone stop her from helping Demi.

Characterisation elsewhere was also strong. Each person has their own individual agenda, and even the characters we like the most act questionably. There’s a great deal of moral ambiguity, which makes Court of Twilight an arresting and unpredictable read. There’s a level of threat beyond classic “good versus evil”, which was refreshing. Pacing is leisurely, but this was never a problem for me, particularly as the build up to the denouement was excellent.

Everything about this felt new and imaginative—the concept of the novel as a whole, the kind of threats faced by the characters, the concept of the fantastical elements. I never knew where it was going and I’m desperate for the sequel so that my questions can be answered.

Favourite quotation: “Ambrose, for his part, didn’t look terribly happy, either…Then again, Ivy had never seen Ambrose in anything remotely close to a pleasant mood. Perhaps being irritable was simply a permanent feature, like a receding hairline, or a bulbous nose.”

Mareth Griffith, Court of Twilight (Parvus Press, 2017)

Thank you to Mareth Griffith and Parvus Press via NetGalley for an advance copy in exchange for an honest review.