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Andrew Davidson – The Gargoyle

September 23, 2008

116. The Gargoyle by Andrew Davidson (2008)

Length: 468 pages

Genre: Literary Fiction; Historical Fiction

Started: 20 September 2008
Finished: 22 September 2008

Redemption comes from
combination of burned man
and schizophrenic woman.

My mad haiku skillz are apparently taking the day off; this one’s terrible. In my defense, though, it’s a lot of book to sum up in 17 syllables! Read on for a slightly more verbose description and review…

Summary: The unnamed narrator of The Gargoyle was a consummate modern cynic, atheist, pornographer, and cocaine addict. However, within the first few pages, he is transformed by a car accident which leaves him stranded in a hospital with disfiguring burns over most of his body. His life is a blur of surgeries, skin grafts, pain, morphine addiction, and thoughts of suicide, until the day that Marianne Engel wanders into the burn ward. She’s a beautiful, compelling, and mentally ill woman, carver of giant stone gargoyles, who claims that she and the narrator were lovers seven hundred years ago in Germany, where she was a nun and he a mercenary. Slowly she begins to tell him the story of their history, as well as stories of love that span time and cross continents. Even though our narrator doesn’t really believe her, he finds himself relying on her presence… which is problematic, because God has informed her that she only has twenty-seven more hearts to give to her carvings, after which she will die.

Review: There has been so much positive buzz surrounding this book that it seems a little bit of overkill to add my voice to the choir, but I will say this: All of that positive buzz is well and truly deserved. It was apparent to me from the first few pages that this was not your average first novel… or even your average novel, period. What grabbed me right from the get-go was how recognizable and relatable everything was. I’m not a coke-addled porn star, nor have I ever been seriously burned, but the cynical, skeptical, sarcastic narrator’s voice felt immediately familiar, and the fact that our narrator has to suspend his disbelief with Marianne makes it easier for the reader to make the similar leap. The writing is powerful and frank, and although occasionally the imagery misses the mark (the “mozzarella commando” line highlighted by the negative review on is no less silly in context), thankfully these missteps are rare, and in general Davidson uses his language like a scapel – sharp and incisive, and at times brutally so. At the same time, the sections told in Marianne’s voice are believably different, and flow in a different rhythm that mirrors her personality. There’s a point a bit more than halfway where the pacing falters – the characters get into a bit of a holding pattern, and I wasn’t sure how Davidson was going to carry the story to the ending, but even so, I never got the impression of the book dragging; I devoured it regardless.

Personally, I think what made this book so powerful and so moving is that is a book about redemption, and which has a very strong religious (specifically, Christian/Catholic) element, but the narrator’s redemption is not a religious one. There’s a subtle line between a spiritual journey and a religious journey, and that distinction doesn’t always get recognized, especially in novels with such heavy religious themes (apart from Marianne being a nun and hearing the voice of the Christian God, Dante’s Inferno features prominently). In The Gargoyle, however, the narrator’s redemption doesn’t come from “finding God”, or any religious conversion, but from something more subtle and more personal – and therefore ultimately more accessible and more powerful for the reader. 4.5 out of 5 stars.

Recommendation: Beautifully crafted, intense, and insightful, The Gargoyle is going to feel the most familiar to readers of historical fiction, but it’s not so simply categorized, and it’s good enough that it shouldn’t be missed by readers of any genre. I’ll be looking forward to Davidson’s next book, for sure.

This Review on LibraryThing | This Book on LibraryThing | This Book on Amazon

Links: Official book website, Unshelved Book Club comic strip

Other Reviews: In the Shadow of Mt. TBR, The Literate Housewife Review, Devourer of Books, Literarily, Bermudaonion’s Weblog, Shhh I’m Reading…, Book-a-rama
Did I miss your review? Let me know.

First Line: Accidents ambush the unexpecting, often violently, just like love.


  • p. 8: “The procedure is called an escharotomy, and it gives the swelling tissue the freedom to expand.” – Incision into a burn scab in order to lessen its pull on the surrounding tissue.
  • p. 213: “The arrow had cut through the breast of your habergeon and much of the material around it was burnt away, but I could feel something heavy and rectangular in the inside pocket.” – A short, sleeveless coat of mail.
  • p. 223: “I protested because of the rain, but he simply pulled on his pluviale and came anyway.” – Vestment of the Catholic church – a coat or cape, frequently water-resistant, decorated with religious scenes on the back.
  • p. 311: “We were given whichever fruits were in season – cherries, plums, apples, pears, and sloes – and luxury items like cloves and ginger, mustard and fennel, sugar and almonds.” – Either of two eastern North American plum trees or shrubs, Prunus alleghaniensis, having dark purple fruit, or P. americana, having yellow or red fruit. (I’d heard of sloe gin, but never actually wondered what that meant.)


p. 133: And, just as the word “Jap” suggests racism, so the word “bitch” suggests misogyny, but the truth is that I dislike most men as much as I dislike most women. If anything, I am an equal opportunity misanthropist. Or, rather, I was. I believe that I have changed since the day I attacked Sayuri. While I’m not claiming that I now feel great love for all people, I can state with some confidence that I hate fewer people than I used to. This may seem like a weak claim to personal growth, but sometimes these things should be judged by distance traveled rather than by current position.

I like the phrase “equal-opportunity misanthropist”. (Hi John!)

p. 319: There is no logical reason to believe in God. There are emotional reasons, certainly, but I cannot have faith that nothing is something simply because it would be reassuring. I can no more believe in God than I can believe an invisible monkey lives in my ass; however, I would believe in both if they could be scientifically proven. This is the crux of the problem for atheists: It is impossible to prove the nonexistence of a thing, and yet theists tend to put the onus on us to prove just that. “An absence of proof is not proof of absence,” they say smugly. Well, true enough. But all it would take is one giant flaming crucifix in the sky, NO MONKEY IN YOUR ASS? seen by everyone in the world at the same time, WHAT ABOUT A SNAKE IN YOUR SPINE? to convince me that God does exist.

Defense of atheism is rare in literature (at least in the literature I find myself reading), particularly in a novel with such a heavy grounding in religion. Very interesting.

19 Comments leave one →
  1. September 23, 2008 9:14 pm

    I have been thinking about this book a great deal after this weekend’s plane crash with DJ AM and Travis Barker. After reading that book, I know what’s in store for them and it must be terrible. Travis has all those tattoos, too. Double tie-in. I have a co-worker who has a great number of tattoos and I know how devastated she’d be to lose them. You can’t tattoo over scar tissue.

  2. September 23, 2008 9:21 pm

    According to everything I’ve heard, this does seem to be a well-loved book.

  3. September 23, 2008 9:31 pm

    I recently finished this book myself. Not my usual genre…I must admit I was attracted by the title. I envisioned something more along the lines of a horror novel. But I was pleasantly surprised. It’s good to read something truly literate and inciteful.

  4. September 23, 2008 10:15 pm

    I thought it sounded like horror too but now I want to read it as part of my Canadian literature challenge. The writer is from Canada and it’s only his first book. I really want a reviewer’s copy but it seems too late now. I enjoyed your review.

  5. September 24, 2008 12:26 am

    Glad you enjoyed it! The Gargoyle’s been my favorite new read of the year, I think.

  6. September 24, 2008 6:39 am

    Wondeful review, I really enjoyed reading your thougts on The Gargoyle. This was one of my top reads this year.
    I also love how you added the vocab to your review – very cool :)

  7. September 24, 2008 8:25 am

    Literate Housewife – The first half of the book was pretty incredible in its realism… I haven’t had to spend the night in a hospital since I was born, but the descriptions of the burn treatment were so well-done that they felt familiar, which is a pretty impressive feat. I’m certainly never going to be able to think about burn victims in the same way.

    Ladytink – Indeed! It’s definitely a very impressive first novel.

    Linda – I was originally expecting a horror/romance hybrid, if that makes sense. I don’t know what genre I actually *would* classify it as, though… “fiction with elements of historical fiction” was about the best I could do.

    Sandra – I didn’t realize that the author was Canadian until after I finished the book… and I just realized that now I’m not even sure where the book is set. I’d been thinking California, but I’m not sure if there was any actual textual basis for that, other than the fact that they’re near an ocean.

    Jena & Joanne – The Gargoyle is most likely going to be in my top 5 for the year, although probably not the top slot. I don’t know if it’s going to be an all-time favorite, but it’s certainly going to be something that sticks with me for a while.

  8. September 24, 2008 11:42 am

    What a beautifully comprehensive review – thank you! The cover art kind of freaked me out (I know, I’m weird), but this has been bumped up on my list now.

  9. September 24, 2008 11:47 am

    I’ve seen this cover floating around, but yours is the first review I’ve actually read. And wow, am I glad I did! You’ve definitely made me add this one to the old wish list.

  10. September 24, 2008 12:21 pm

    Michele – I really like this cover art – it’s directly related to the story (those are Marianne’s tattoos), and is intriguing, but doesn’t really give anything away about the story. What I didn’t realize is that the flaming heart is actually printed on the book cover, and the heart is a cut-out of the dust jacket. I got my copy from the library, and it’s got a weird white liner in-between the dust jacket and the liner, so the heart’s just white.

    Debi – Great! The response hasn’t been universally positive, but hopefully you’ll enjoy it as much as I did.

  11. September 24, 2008 3:16 pm

    Ha ha, a monkey in the ass!

    I liked your haiku; at least it got me to click the full review! And I really love how in-depth your reviews are and how you set them up.

    I find defense of atheism in books a lot, but maybe I’m looking for it. I will definitely be adding this book to my wishlist!

  12. September 24, 2008 3:55 pm

    Dew – I think it’s probably a function of the genres I read more than anything else. Most fantasy novels feature people on various ends of the atheism/theism spectrum, but it’s typically not the Judeo-Christian God on the theism end. Historical fiction, or at least the stuff I find myself reading, is typically set in a period where Christianity is tacitly accepted as the default. There are certainly plenty of books that I’ve read where religion isn’t a factor one way or another, but I can’t think of many with a vigorous defense of atheism.

  13. September 25, 2008 11:24 am

    I LOVE the vocabulary section of this review. I can’t believe some of those words. Anyway, when I finally get around to reading this book, I’ll be heading back here for some instruction! Thanks.

  14. September 25, 2008 11:29 am

    Jessica – I was actually surprised at how little vocabulary there was, especially given the strong historical-fiction element to the book. But either I missed ’em or they weren’t really there… plus, escharotomy and pluviale are defined in the text, I just included them here so I’d remember them later. :)

  15. September 25, 2008 12:23 pm

    Nicki, great review.

    I too loved that the narrator’s voice was so fresh, witty, and sarcastic. Such a serious subject matter but he had me laughing on more than one occasion.

  16. September 26, 2008 12:49 pm

    Shana – Thanks! I was laughing not only at the funny bits, but also at how much the narrator occasionally sounded exactly like some of my friends.

  17. Worraps permalink
    January 9, 2009 3:40 pm

    Hi!! well let me say that your review is very cool and like none I’ve read ;) I finished the book today, and came to the net to find websites about it! I ended up in this one reading your review.
    I loved the book, is one of my favorite books, I have lots of them :P But I really enjoyed Andrew Davidson’s writing, it is very original and full of sarcasm and evilness, while telling various love stories, I hope he writes more like this! oh! and my cover is not this one, I’m from Portugal, altought I bought the book in english, mine is the one from this link: and the pages are painted in black in the edge…so this was what caught my attention and made me buy the book :P I don’t regret it a bit! I love the story and I think it is one of books (from the ones I read) that can express better what love means and what it provokes on people ;) **

  18. July 21, 2011 5:42 pm

    I found your review of this via a link from your Centuries of June review, and I have to add a dissenting voice to the praise of The Gargoyle. I didn’t find it engaging, though the writing was clever: I found myself not believing in the love story between Marianne and the unnamed narrator, which for me took a great chunk of the believability out of the novel – the historical bits were much better.

    My review here:


  1. The Gargoyle « Care's Online Book Club

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