Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Review: Poor Things – Alasdair Gray

Poor Things – Alasdair Gray

Poor Things is a postmodern revision of Frankenstein that replaces the traditional monster with Bella Baxter—a beautiful young erotomaniac brought back to life with the brain of an infant. Godwin Baxter's scientific ambition to create the perfect companion is realized when he finds the drowned body of Bella, but his dream is thwarted by Dr. Archibald McCandless's jealous love for Baxter's creation. The hilarious tale of love and scandal that ensues would be "the whole story" in the hands of a lesser author (which in fact it is, for this account is actually written by Dr. McCandless). For Gray, though, this is only half the story, after which Bella (a.k.a. Victoria McCandless) has her own say in the matter. Satirizing the classic Victorian novel, Poor Things is a hilarious political allegory and a thought-provoking duel between the desires of men and the independence of women.

This is what's under the dust jacket. You gotta love it when a book looks good naked.

Review: I was hesitant to read Poor Things because there is a lot going on in this novel. The book has strange formatting and images. It’s written to sound like a Victorian classic, but it’s also satirizing Victorian classics. It’s a bizarre feminist Frankenstein reimagining told by multiple unreliable narrators. It’s a book-within-a-book. I wasn’t sure if it would be too meta for me to get interested in the story. I often feel distant from metafiction because it can be too clever for its own good.

The majority of Poor Things is made up of a memoir written and self-published by the main character, Dr. Archibald McCandless. He tells the story of how his friend, Dr. Godwin Baxter, acquires the body of a drowned pregnant woman. Baxter resurrects the woman by replacing her brain with the brain of her unborn baby. Baxter names his creation “Bella Baxter” and tries to make her into his perfect companion. This works out well until Bella and McCandless fall in love and get married. (This isn’t a spoiler. McCandless says it in the beginning of his book.)

The second part of Poor Things is a letter from “Bella” to her great-grandchildren. After her husband’s death, she reads the memoir he wrote and decides that she needs to set the record straight. Her marriage to McCandless was far from perfect, and her Frankenstein-like “resurrection” wasn’t anywhere near as mysterious as he made it seem.

“You, dear reader, have now two accounts to choose between and there can be no doubt which is most probable.”- Poor Things

I have mixed feelings about this book. It definitely wasn’t too meta for me, but I did have problems with it. The beginning and end are entertaining. I laughed at Bella’s “erotomania” and the way that her sex drive and wandering eye exhaust men. She quickly turns their fantasies into nightmares. But, the middle of this book is extraordinarily boring. This is one of those novels where the characters don’t do much. I have to admit that I skimmed parts of the middle and that I considered giving up on the book multiple times. The middle mostly consists of McCandless and Baxter talking and reading letters. I lost patience with the lack of action. The only reason that I kept reading was because I knew that Bella’s side of the story would be told at the end, and I wanted to hear it.

I also got annoyed with reading Bella’s rambling, punctuation-less dialogue and writing. I know that she (supposedly) has the brain of an unborn baby, but I skimmed some of her letters and dialogue because I couldn’t take it.

 “Dear God I am tired. It is late. Writing like Shakespeare is hard work for a woman with a cracked head who cannot spell properly.” – Poor Things

Even though I was bored for the majority of the book, there are a few things that I really like about it. The author does an excellent job with the unreliable narrators. They have vastly different interpretations of the same events. A character who is likeable from one person’s perspective can be a total jerk from another’s. It’s very realistic.

I also like the feminism. Every man sees Bella as a blank slate. They each try to make her into what they want. They tell her what to believe about religion and politics. They try to form her into their ideal wife or companion. Even McCandless attempts to make Bella what he wants by taking it upon himself to tell the world her story. The reader doesn’t get to hear Bella’s real voice until the end. Everything else she says in the book is filtered through the male narrators. It isn’t until the end that the reader realizes that Bella may be manipulating the men just as much as they are manipulating her. She uses the men to make a difference in the world.

“I clenched my teeth and fists to stop them biting and scratching these clever men who want no care for the helpless sick small, who use religions and politics to stay comfortably superior to all that pain: who make religions and politics, excuses to spread misery with fire and sword and how could I stop all this? I did not know what to do.”- Poor Things

I can’t say that I recommend reading Poor Things because I thought the majority of it was slow, but if you’re interested in feminist literature, you might want to check it out.


  1. This sounds somewhat interesting, but also a little too weird for me. Sorry it was a bit slow for you! Terrific review!

  2. I read this for university a few years back, and my feelings were very similar to yours. As someone from Glasgow, I enjoyed reading parts where the narrator spoke about places I knew - and, like you, I enjoyed the feminist parts. The mid-section was definitely ridiculously slow and often tedious, though! A mixed-bag of a book, for sure.

  3. This book sounds very, very interesting. I want to look into this because I'm very intrigued.