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Book Review: Requiem for the Author of Frankenstein by Molly Dwyer

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Requiem For The Author of Frankenstein is an intriguing and ambitious first full-length novel by Molly Dwyer. It delves into the relationship between the present and the past, reality and unreality, living and dead, being both a Gothic ghost story and philosophical treatise on the recovery of feminine genius in our narrative of history to feed the future. Not all parts of the novel are equally successful, but the author succeeds in bringing the Romantic period, with all its colourful characters, to very believable life, and that makes this a very good read.

Dwyer takes her interest in the recovery of feminine creative power and creates a story around two intriguing ideas. One idea is inspired by this quote:

What if you slept, and what if in your sleep you dreamed,
And what if in your dream you went to heaven
And there you plucked a strange and beautiful flower,
And what if when you awoke you had the flower in your hand?
Ah, what then?
—Samuel Taylor Coleridge, 1798

The other is explained in this excerpt from Dwyer’s essay on "Dreams and Synchronicity," taken from her website:

And thus we find ourselves embedded in a natural world that cooperates with human consciousness. We find evidence that nature is not a separate "Other," not a mechanical backdrop against which we live, but rather an ecological system in which we exist. In fact, to understand what "reality" is, we must recognize ourselves as participants in a multi-faceted relationship with all that is.

Requiem For the Author of Frankenstein (which I’ll now shorten to Requiem) questions our relationship to reality as it follows the story of modern day Anna, who has been invited to give a paper on Mary Shelley in England. Oddly, since deciding to do the paper, Anna has been having strange dreams involving not only Mary Shelley, but all the key players in her story—and the dreams seem so real, Anna has picked up stakes and travelled to England to research and write her paper.

She soon finds herself meeting people in the present with connections to the people she’s writing about in the past — and as if that’s not strange enough, Anna’s dreams begin to spill into her waking life, making her question whether they are dreams at all. With Lord Byron appearing in his library and Mary Shelley in the cellar of a decrepit old Bed and Breakfast, Anna is not sure whether she’s losing her mind or her place in time and space. When she begins to live Mary Shelley’s life in the past, she makes the choice to believe the past and present are not separate realities — that in fact, all time is present time, and she has the chance to participate in the unfolding of Mary Shelley’s genius, the better to chronicle it for the inspiration of future women.

It’s an ambitious undertaking, and one that the reader can appreciate even when it stumbles slightly. The modern day thread of the story does not read as well as the Romantic period, as Gothic Romantic language falls uneasily on the ear in a modern setting. My sympathy tended to be with the sceptics Anna encounters as she collapses in hallways and falls into dreams. When a sex scene involving Anna and her new lover is described as: “They were moving in concord now, moving as one in their pleasure dome, rocking and cooing, squeezing and holding, swooning together,” it seems more overwrought than erotic. But when the action shifts to Mary Shelley and her circle, the Romantic language fits like a glove, and, oddly, the descriptions of relationships are more grounded and earthier than those of the present.

Dwyer brings the past to meticulously researched and believable life. As soon as the narrative settles into a sustained look at Mary Shelley’s life, the novel is absolutely gripping, from the wonderful excerpts taken from writings of everyone involved, but particularly Mary, to the complicated relationship dynamics between Mary Shelley, her half-sister Claire, Percy Bysshe Shelley and Lord Byron. With each of these characters willing to break convention to live a revolutionary life, and suffering the consequences, their story is enthralling and heart breaking, with enough love and hurt inflicted to keep the reader riveted.

Mary Shelley’s life was not only fascinating, tumultuous and ultimately tragic as she loses both children and husband, it also played out among the major philosophical minds that shaped the Romantic age, of which Dwyer convincingly argues Mary Shelley was one. Her Frankenstein was very much a part of the revolutionary and republican debate her mother, Mary Wollstonecraft, and her father, William Godwin, engaged in, and which Mary, Percy Bysshe Shelley and Lord Byron lived to the full, banished from polite society but sought after by free thinkers of the age. The philosophical discussion of Romantic ideas works very well when placed in the mouths of the people involved, far more believable than when espoused by Anna, even when the ideas are in fact the same.

But interesting as the philosophy is, the story works best of all as an historical novel. Dwyer brings each location to breathtaking life, from Godwin’s parlour, London’s artistic circles, Didiot in Switzerland where the Shelleys, Claire and Lord Byron live for a time, and Italy where the four live until Shelley meets his death at the young age of twenty-nine. I was completely immersed in their world, horrified at the inexorable march to Shelley’s drowning and believing the complex ways Mary’s relationships with her lover, her half-sister and her friend Byron evolved. At the end of Requiem, Mary Shelley stands as a fascinating character, well worth the historical spotlight.

And that makes the book ultimately successful, despite the relative weakness of the modern narrative strand. And if Dwyer doesn’t quite achieve all the ambitions she lays out in Requiem, the ambitiousness is nevertheless admirable — this novel asks you to think as well as feel, and that is a combination I have no problem recommending.

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