The recent winner of Whitbread Novel Award for 1992, as well as the Guardian Fiction Prize: a witty sendup of the Victorian pantheon as Scottish novelist Gray (Sporting Leather, 1991, etc.) masterfully demolishes those scientific, cultural, and social shibboleths that so comforted our forebears. With invented blurbs and a tongue-in-cheek introduction, Gray immediately signals his intentions to tell a story, refuted later in an epilogue, that's so bizarre that its credibility will be automatically suspect—a story more concerned with highlighting the absurdities of the day than with any reality. Setting the tale in his native Glasgow, Gray purports to be publishing the memoirs of a Victorian doctor, Archibald McCandless, the illegitimate son of a wealthy farmer who was befriended by Godwin Baxter, the strange- looking son of an eminent surgeon. Baxter, he soon learns, having removed the brain from the fetus of a recently drowned woman and inserted it in her skull, has brought the young woman back to life. Bella—a prototype Victorian new woman and a female Frankenstein- -falls in love with McCandless, but elopes first with another. Her adventures abroad are suitably picaresque; but as Bella's brain catches up with her physical maturity, she becomes aware of suffering and injustice and decides to become a doctor back in Scotland. Unfortunately, though, she's been recognized as the long- missing and presumed drowned Victoria Blessington. Her wedding to the faithful McCandless is interrupted by the arrival of her mendacious father and sadistic husband, General Sir Aubrey de la Pole Blessington. All eventually ends well—but in the epilogue, seemingly turning the story on its head, the widowed Dr. Victoria McCandless describes the tale as mainly a work of fiction that ``stinks of Victorianism.'' Which is, of course, the whole point. Gray has not only pulled off a stylistic tour de force, but has slyly slipped in a stunning critique of the late-19th-century. A brilliant marriage of technique, intelligence, and art. And, as an extra bonus, lavish illustrations by the author himself.
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