Completed 7/15/2017, reviewed 7/16/2017
I found this book while searching the “theology” category on Worlds Without End, for my Theology in Genre Fiction Reading Challenge. I was excited because the library had it, although I was a little suspect: I found the book in the literature section instead of Fantasy/SF. What I got was a highly readable, exciting book with an unlikely romance and only a little theological fantasy element. Nonetheless, I was completely satisfied.
The premise is that the narrator, an actor/director in the porn industry is in a horrific, fiery car crash, leaving him with burns over much of his body. While undergoing extensive repair therapy in the hospital, he meets Marianne, an escapee from the mental ward who insists they were lovers in a past life. She’s a sculptress, making grotesques, that is, gargoyles that do not spout water. Once she leaves the ward, she visits him repeatedly, bringing him stories of their past life as well as other stories of love and devotion. When it’s time for him to leave the hospital, he moves in with her. He finds meaning and love amidst the chaos of her artistic, manic, and possibly schizophrenic life.
The past life is the part of the book that helps categorize it as theological. Marianne was a German nun in the early 1300s. She worked in the scriptorium, copying and translating books. She has a natural gift with languages and works on a translation of the Bible in German and secretly works on a translation of Dante’s Inferno into German as well. Her work and life is interrupted when a mercenary soldier is brought to the abbey with burns from a fiery arrow. She is assigned to care for him. This is the first time Marianne and the narrator meet in the past. What makes this genre fiction is its ambiguous nature. Is the past life real or fiction?
Another aspect of the story that is theological genre fiction is the narrator’s own descent into hell while he detoxes from morphine. Like the past life, it is unclear whether the trip through his own version on Dante’s Inferno is real or not. Some things happen that are too uncanny to be simply hallucinations.
The book is really well researched. Besides the details of the fourteenth century, there is an amazing amount of detail in the plight of the narrator as a burn victim. The author covers actual burning experience, the extremely long healing process and the mental and emotional effects on the victim as well. Some of the writing is so vivid, I felt like I was experiencing it as it happened. It is intense and downright frightening at times.
For a book that straddles the line of genre fiction, I have to say I thoroughly enjoyed it. I questioned whether or not it was fantasy right up to the end. But the plot and execution of the book was so well done that I didn’t mind. If anything, it was nice to get away from genre fiction for a little bit. The only thing I have to say against the book is that the details of the burn victim’s experience may be too intense for some people. I give the book five out of five stars. The premise is great, the detail is great, the writing is great. There are a few plot holes which don’t get wrapped up nicely, but I had such an ecstatic reaction to the book I couldn’t knock points off for this. I highly recommend this book as long as you think you can handle the intense burn victim details.