This dark, subversive and heavily allegorical novel begins as its coke-fueled narrator drives off a bridge late one night, his burning car falling into a creek and exploding in a violent inferno. When the flames are eventually extinguished, his flesh is broiled, the man almost tarnished beyond recognition. Once a self-obsessed and hedonistic porn-star, his glistening body inhabiting a “graceful muscularity,”
he is suddenly transformed into a burnt-out shell as “the gaping maw of a snake” lunges at him and laughs.
His body ravaged, unrecognizable as his former self, he appears as a monster, “a thing of engorged flesh suffused with juice,” his proud manhood forever severed. While his associates
in the skin trade gradually drift away, unable to cope with the scene before them, he lies in bed, the drip of morphine inhabiting every inch of his spine.
Images of the accident reel into each other, and he cannot help but dream of gargoyles and a tail that has one ring deeper into Hell.
Only through his kindly doctor, Nan Edwards, his psychologist, Gregor, and Sayuri, a bubbly and likable Japanese physical therapist, can our narrator hope to be pulled back from the brink. Soon enough, a mysterious and heavily tattooed young woman by the name of Marianne Engel appears in the burn ward door, dressed in a light green hospital gown
and whispering the word “Engelthal,” proceeding to tell him that this is in fact the third time he’s been burned.
At first our narrator thinks she’s a lunatic, perhaps even an escapee from the psychiatric ward of the hospital. But Marianne knows the origin of the scar over his heart, and she seems have an insight into his very soul, telling him that once upon a time she lived in the 14th century and was cloistered for many years at a German monastery called Engelthal.
A sort of eternal spirit who invites damaged souls into her home for rebirth, Marianne is convinced that she has been placed in God’s service. She rapidly becomes the new woman in
the narrator’s life, beguiling him with stories of their time together when he was her one true love from a supposed previous life, where he was once left for dead but resurrected by her through the power of love.
Bordering on manic-depressive and perhaps even schizophrenic, Marianne uses her talents as an artist to aid in our narrator’s recovery, especially after he is released from
the hospital and comes to live with her. With voices that come out of the stone giving her instructions, it is steadily revealed that Marianne is an accomplished and fanatical sculptor of stone gargoyles and that she sees herself as a channel of the Divine, her work a circle of communication between God, the gargoyles and herself.
Ultimately connected by love, Marianne mesmerizes our narrator with a series of devastating fairy tales to show what happens when love can crumble under a few harsh words or is tossed away with a handful of careless actions. In an unexpected reversal of fate, the scars that transform
the narrator; only after his skin is burned away is he finally able to feel: “Only after I was born into physical repulsiveness did I come to glimpse the true possibilities of the heart.”
Davidson steadily transports us into the heart of Marianne’s past, where historical, religious and literary illusions flourish and multiply.
Only through her complex and multi-layered journey to our narrator’s bedside do we finally understand the full extent of her strapping and muscular love, and why she so fanatically sculpts gargoyles out of blocks of cement even when it becomes detrimental to her own health.
Obviously fire plays an important part in the novel, with Dante’s legendary
Inferno echoing throughout. Our narrator is placed in this symbolic landscape, perhaps reflective of someone who has both physically and spiritually descended into brimstone and hellfire. With his “atrocious face and abominable body,” he is ultimately forced to overcome the limitations of who he is, but it is only through Marianne and her stories of love that he is able to garner the strength and find the resilience to continue.