In The Monster’s Wife, first-time novelist Kate Horsley honours the gothic tradition of Mary Shelley while maintaining a fresh, unique voice. Some describe this book as a sequel to Shelley’s classic Frankenstein. I view this new book as an ingenious spin-off revamping a short period of the classic tale. It takes place after Victor Frankenstein makes a pact with his ‘creature’ to play God once again —to make a wife for the creature. Victor settles in the Orkney Islands for a bout of manic, promised work. Its dark, moody atmosphere lends well to the harsh landscape of the islands and the unravelling plot. With its vibrant imagery and meticulous details, The Monster’s Wife will have a firm grip on you from the start.
Horsley’s main character isn’t Victor Frankenstein nor his forsaken creature, but rather a young woman who burns with fierce determination despite having a delicate, “off-kilter” heart. Tall, red-haired Oona Scollay makes some of the islanders uneasy because of her spells. In fact, the “more her fainting fits were spoken of in the valley, the less people liked to meet her eye.” Luckily, Oona finds a kindred spirit in May, a fellow islander destined to be wed to a handsome young fisherman. The writer does a marvelous job of developing these women’s strong bond. The female characters in The Monster’s Wife do not meander in the background like the passive women in Shelley’s famous novel.
Along with May, Oona tends to the impossible needs of the enigmatic Dr. Frankenstein after his arrival to the isolated island of Hoy. At first, the foreign doctor’s behavior unnerves Oona. Settled in Hoy’s grandest manor, he conducts secret scientific experiments while muttering with nonsensical fervour. Oona’s first task: secretly dumping crates filled with the fetid remnants of dead frogs into the sea, in the middle of the night:
“The sky blanched. [Oona and May] both cowered, silently counting the thunder’s rebuke. They had roamed too far to swim home if things got rough and the boat capsized. The clouds split and spilled their bellies’ weight in water. Icy fine points drove into Oona’s lips and eyelids. Their vessel seemed to droop, as if it had sailed this far on a last rush of strength and now felt the heft of its cargo of crates. Oona’s back ached from rowing now they’d broken off and her gut tightened on sharp things, a growing bellyache, a sense that things were about to turn rotten.”
A few days later, when the cargo’s contents wash up on the shore, the villagers view it as an ill omen and blame the mysterious foreigner:
“Ever since the doctor came, people were saying the year would be thin. No rain, poor seed. The moment he landed, oats and barley soured in the ground and the shoots looked mean.”
Little by little, Oona learns about the doctor’s work and his ultimate goal, which are already known to those who read Frankenstein. She eventually becomes enamoured by him. While her fascination with Dr. Frankenstein grows, so does a dreadful sense of being watched and followed. Occasionally, Oona sees cold, blue eyes fixing her from the shadows’ depths. When tragedy strikes and the islanders vow revenge, the lives of Oona, the doctor, and the shadowy, blue-eyed figure become irrevocably intertwined.
The gloomy, ominous tone persist throughout the book. The author uses imagery and language ideal for the story of a mad scientist bringing lifeless bodies back from the dead. In fact, the numerous literary devices she uses pertain to the body or the injuries thereof. If I were to sum up Horsley’s style in a few words, it would be poetic, visceral, and gut-wrenching. My one complaint: too many similes. Nearly every page has one or more similes. In the beginning, comparisons like “It was the best of togetherness, that understanding that grafted one onto the other so their differences vanished under their closeness, like skin knitting over a wound” and “In front of her was a big piece of driftwood, sun-bleached as a bone and smooth from the sea’s caress” are enchanting. Aren’t they? As you progress, the overabundance of such similes may become an unwelcome distraction.
Reading Frankenstein prior to reading this spin-off is not essential for the comprehension of the story. The Monster’s Wife stands on its own. Still, having read Shelley’s work will enrich your interpretation, since Horsley’s novel gives new light to Frankenstein’s characters and themes. Authorial choices (Does Horsley give a name to Dr. Frankenstein’s ‘creature’? Does she also allude to the story of Adam and Eve? On whom does she bestow ultimate responsibility?) may pass unnoticed to Frankenstein virgins, but will delight those of us who were enraptured by the classic.
The momentum of this story never relents, unlike that of Frankenstein that has its lulls. I will not ruin The Monster’s Wife by further discussing the plot. I will tell you this: you will not be able to put the book down. And, oh, the ending! What a fitting, unexpected ending to such an engrossing story.
The Monster’s Wife by Kate Horsley
Barbican Press, 266 pages.
Kindle ($13.01) and Kobo ($13.55) editions now available
Paperback ($25.00) edition available on August 28, 2014
*I received an ARC of this book in exchange for an honest review.*