Home > Book Reviews > Book Review – Poor Things by Alasdair Gray

Book Review – Poor Things by Alasdair Gray

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I hadn’t intended on reading Alasdair Gray’s Poor Things, but now I’m glad I did. I picked it up in a second hand bookstore in Geraldton in the course of my travels, not having read a word of Gray. I have heard of him, however; his Lanark is fairly famous in the dusty halls of the history of science fiction. The other reason I picked this up was because, flicking through it, I saw that it had a number of weird and interesting illustrations and photographs. I have attained the station in life where a great deal of what I find before me (be it on the television, computer or in the street) bores me utterly, so I now have a policy that if something doesn’t appear to be of particular interest to me, I will look at it if it appears genuinely weird, strange or different from the run of the mill. And my sensors were wondering on this occasion, for I found Poor Things to be interesting and weird.

What we have here is a gothic tale set in Scotland in the second half of the 19th century, and a plot that owes a lot to Frankenstein and other ghoulish creations. In it, Archibald McCandless, M.D., falls in love with an initially childish but beautiful woman by the name of Bella Baxter. She lives with an ogre-ish but good man called Godwin Baxter. Bella Baxter herself is a creation of Godwin: he took her drowned body, removed the dying foetus, and splices the infant’s brain with the woman’s body, creating a wholly new woman. Right-o. These three form a bizarre triangle, and the novel revolves around them. In the course of their adventures (primarily Bella’s adventures) we are privy to a good deal of gallivanting around Europe and further afield, a fair few stormy relationships and even some scenes in a casino. Pretty routine stuff then. The plot isn’t so much what makes Poor Things interesting, for it is certainly derivative of those nineteenth century works on which it is based.

One of the more interesting aspects of this book is the layout and structure. Gray seems to have designed and illustrated this volume himself, and he has peppered it with images from Gray’s Anatomy, various other sources and a fair few illustrations he drew himself. Even better, the volume is structured around several different texts, the longest being “Episodes from the Early Life of Archibald McCandless M.D., Scottish Public Health Officer.” We also get letters from Bella herself, and another man by the name of Wedderburn. All of this serves to maintain the reader’s interest and to provide the illusion that we are reading a bona-fide nineteenth century creation.

Poor Things isn’t a difficult read, despite its eccentricity, and it rarely drags despite its 300+ page length. The penultimate section is written by Bella, after her husband Archibald’s death, and in it she refutes much of what is said in the bulk of the book. But then the notes in the final section (purportedly written by Gray, i.e. the actual author) cast doubt on much of Bella’s account. So we are left on shifting ground. I doubt I’ll invest much effort trying to track down the elusive Lanark in the next little while, but I will certainly read it if I have the chance. Gray is a hardworking writer and book designer of a kind that seems to have almost vanished in the modern age, and I wish there were more writers who appeared to be as passionate about their material as he is.

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  1. melanie
    April 19, 2012 at 7:49 am

    Can you tell me a little about the social-class structure that Gray shows in this novel?

    • guysalvidge
      April 19, 2012 at 9:08 am

      I’d love to help, Melanie, but it’s been more than three years since I read this now, and I honestly don’t remember much about the class structure in the book. It definitely had this 19th century feel to it though 🙂

      • Melanie
        April 19, 2012 at 9:11 am

        I will analyze it based on the 19th century. Thank you for your reply.

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