Review: Frankissstein by Jeanette Winterson

“I am liminal, cusping, in between, emerging, undecided, transitional, experimental, a start-up (or is it an upstart?) in my own life.”

Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is one of the rare pieces of literature that sits in the Venn diagram overlap of edgy teens and Romantic scholars. A tale of creation and loss, ambition and remorse, love and grief, Shelley remains the queen of innovative paralleling, not just in themes but in her characters. Her unique frame narrative of letters, stories, and even her preface never ceases to impress me with its clever overlapping and, while some parts of the tale are so implausible as to seem ridiculous, her intricacy and exquisite language rightly put Frankenstein in the literary canon.

Having said that, once out of Shelley’s hands, the novel became so popular as to border on overdone. From pop culture to theatre, book sequels to endless cinema remakes, her tale has never been out of the public eye, making the creation of new and unique adaptations difficult.

Jeanette Winterson, however, with her thought-provoking, coalescing plots and her profound language, has gone above and beyond an adaptation with her reimagined Frankissstein. Released in April of 2019, Winterson’s ingenuity lies in combining her exceedingly modern dialogue with the book’s 19thcentury origins. Through her own use of multi-layered narratives and character paralleling, Winterson moves on from Shelley’s influence in telling her own tale. The narrators deviate from Mary Shelley herself, retelling the triumphs and trauma of her life since writing her debut novel, to a mysterious man in a Bedlam cell who claims to be her written creation: Victor Frankenstein. “I am the monster you created” he states, “I cannot die because I have never lived.” From this mythical reworking of Frankenstein’s origins follows a thrilling, modern scene in which Ry Shelley, a transgender doctor, finds themselves deep in the world of artificial intelligence.

Winterson’s novel, through its endless entwining, allows the reader to feel lost between time and character, highlighting how certain debates about mankind are perhaps not as modern as we presume. By combining Romantic themes of the Sublime (simultaneous beauty and terror) alongside modern theories of gender fluidity and construction, Winterson looks at both the physical and philosophical constraints of the human.

It is uniquely refreshing and perfectly fitting to have a transgender character at the book’s core, and Ry Shelley – rather than feeling tokenistic – is written with brilliant nuance. As the author of the iconic lesbian novel, Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit, I shouldn’t have doubted Winterson’s ability to write queer characters well. Ry embraces their transness as “doubleness”, confined neither to male nor female but thriving in the surrounding liminal space of gender; they are between and outside, both and neither. Their self-assurance, despite the transphobia they face verbally and physically, forms the base for Professor Victor Stein’s theory that the (sexed) body is redundant, prompting us to question the mind’s limitation by the bodies we inhabit.

Finally, while Shelley is known for blurring the lines between the natural and artificial, human and artificial, Winterson extends this further through her metanarratives. Through her recycling of names, locations and phrases, she focuses our attention on both her and Shelley’s constructions of a novel itself. Just as Shelley referred to her work as her “hideous progeny” – her own monstrous creation which, like her protagonist, she unleashed on the world – Winterson continually asks us in her novel: Who is the teller and whose is the tale? For instance, Winterson depicts Victor as Shelley’s imagination, a subconscious part of Shelley’s ego, a mysterious but real man in a mental institution, and a modern-day professor of A.I. Both author and character are united in interrogating their reality and/or the frame in which they are constructed, allowing Winterson to present a fascinating palimpsest of creator and creation.

Ultimately, Frankissstein is a brilliant reimagining of Shelley’s classic for the modern-day. Full of endless and ingenious character parallels, within a framework constructed with stylistic perfection, Winterson gives an appreciative nod to Shelley’s talent as an author while writing her own unique “Love Story”. She engages with strikingly modern debates around gender theory, A.I., and even Brexit, yet she acknowledges the Romantic philosophy that underpins today’s progress, making for a profound yet delightful page-turner about being human.

– Eleanor-Rose Gordon

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