Book Review: Frankissstein // Jeanette Winterson

Frankissstein is an ambitious attempt to tell two stories whilst asking questions about identity and personhood. Whilst it comes close to success in its first objective, its second is a resounding failure. Despite failing to meaningfully engage with any of its targeted topics, though it does at times coming tantalisingly close, it is still an enjoyable and breezy read.

The stories that make up Frankissstein take place in dramatically different time periods, one in post-Brexit Britain and the other in 1819. The former follows one man’s quest to reanimate a corpse in a kind of modern retelling of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, with the addition of an impossibly sleazy Welshman who sells sex robots. The latter is, more or less, the story of Shelley writing Frankenstein, with a few interesting changes.

The novel’s characters, despite being a rich and varied cast, are little more than toys for author Jeanette Winterson. These toys are often contorted into poses that, if sentient, they would no doubt find excruciatingly embarrassing. For instance, one scene sees Lord Byron expounding painfully misogynistic theories on women couched in such faux-poetic language that hearing it would make a first-year literature student blush.

Such treatment of the characters, as little more than tools in the construction of a kind of Socratic dialogue wrapped in plot, would be more than acceptable if it had been well executed and the conversations between the characters had broached the topics in any serious way. Instead, the reader is teased with introduction after introduction to interesting topics, only for it to be ripped from them as a promising opening is superficially glazed over. This, too, could be excused if the plot was more engaging.

Of the two stories, the one covering the life of Mary Shelley as she writes Frankenstein was by far the more enjoyable read. This is in no small part due to its focus on dialogue over struggling to push a plot forward. Peppered with promising passages (“I do not wonder that we drink as much as we do, or that the poor, when they can afford it, drink most of all…”) and steeped in literary references — Mary Shelley at one point describes Lord Byron as “Ariel, not Caliban” — it is by far the more engaging part of the novel. Almost invariably, the discussions and drinking sessions going on between Shelley and co. in a small house on the lake were far more interesting than reading about the futuristic world of tech conferences and labs underneath Manchester. This is counterintuitive — Winterson wasted an opportunity by squandering the vision of the future that she conjured up.

Ultimately, though, Frankissstein is a novel dominated by that futuristic vision and, in turn, that futuristic vision is dominated by the crudeness of its jokes and its blunt scene-setting. From the ‘70s feminist-style sex robot called Germaine to clumsy attempts to situate the story in a modern setting (“And in the sky there was the moon, big as a Bitcoin…”), it repeatedly fails to be sufficiently funny or witty to justify itself. In fact, these snippets of dialogue or insights into the world crowd out what could have been a genuinely interesting discussion. For instance, in its discussions of AI, it sometimes gets halfway to profound: “Really, Ry, When you consider the human as a collection of limbs and organs then what is human?” 

The failure of the book in these regards should not discourage you from picking it up, though. You’re unlikely to ever find yourself particularly emotionally invested, not least because of the low stakes throughout, but there is some small amount of mystery to keep you interested and enough zany characters to make it memorable. Plus, it’s a remarkably effortless read. Perfect for these endless quarantine days.

Frankissstein, by Jeanette Winterson. £16.99, published by Vintage Publishing

Words by Charley Weldrick

This article was originally published as part of The Indiependent’s May 2020 charity magazine, which raised money for the British Lung Foundation. Find out more here.

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