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Book Review – Poor Things by Alasdair Gray

You don’t simply read it: you enter into it, interact with it.

As Yorgos Lanthimos’ film adaptation of Alasdair Gray’s novel Poor Things has received not only rave reviews but numerous accolades, including four Oscars, it’s the perfect time to look at the source material. This is not a comparison between the two but rather a chance to give those who don’t know the novel an idea of what to expect, and of what makes it exceptional.

First, a brief synopsis, which is not easy as there are multiple layers and even readings to Poor Things. The novel is (mostly) set in the late 19th century. A guileless son of Galloway, Archibald McCandless enrolls as a medical student at the University of Glasgow. There he meets the unusual scientist Godwin Baxter, who assists in the Anatomy Department. Godwin introduces Archie to Bella Baxter, a young woman whom he claims to have resurrected after she drowned in the River Clyde. As Bella develops, or recovers, she craves new sensations, and this brings her into contact with the rakish Duncan Wedderburn, an unsuitable suitor who whisks her away from her life confined with Godwin and Archie, a move which changes them all acutely.

During Bella’s voyage of discovery, subjects such as religion, sex, morality, civil liberties, politics, and so much more, are explored through her thoughts, deeds, experiences, and encounters. By the time Bella returns home, all are transformed, including the reader. This is the story, but it depends who you believe. The central text is by Archibald McCandless, but his wife, Victoria McCandless M.D., has a different take.

And then there is the editorial input of one Alasdair Gray.

Image credits: Courtesy of The Alasdair Gray Archive

Published in 1992, Poor Things: Episodes from the Early Life of Archibald McCandless M.D., Scottish Public Health Officer, to give the full title, is not only a great Scottish novel but, importantly, a great Glasgow novel. It’s one that breaks from the stereotypes of crime and Clydesideism which were prevalent in the 20th century in particular, from Herbert Kingsley Long’s No Mean City through George Friel and William McIlvanney, to James Kelman, Louise Welsh, and beyond.

While great novels were written in that tradition, Gray offers an alternative view. Although there are references to Glasgow’s ‘Second City of the Empire’ status and the results of industrialisation – the ‘industrial smoke and gases’ which would fill the Clyde Valley – it moves effortlessly around the Dear Green Place, from Park Circus to Pollokshields, from the Campsies to the Cathkin Braes, with many stop-offs along the way.

What’s depicted is a city of riverside walks, university halls, and cathedrals, but also, according to – by this stage quite deranged – Duncan Wedderburn, a modern day Babylon and the only place the ‘beastly’ Bella, as he now regards her, could have come from.

Image credits: Courtesy of The Alasdair Gray Archive

Poor Things offers a multifaceted reimagining of Glasgow, lending it an identity which is celebratory but also complex (and at times problematic) rather than one-dimensional, and this is reflected not only in the characters but in the format of the book itself.

In Alasdair Gray’s fiction, real life and the imaginary fuse together, and he enjoys nothing more than playing with the reader. The introduction to Poor Things is written by Alasdair Gray as if the text were a real-life account: it mentions Elspeth King, who was indeed the curator of the People’s Palace in Glasgow Green. Gray the editor goes on to explain how the central text of Poor Things was ‘salvaged’ by King’s deputy Michael Donnelly. Both were colleagues and friends of the real Gray, and their inclusion lends what follows a legitimacy that is deliberately misleading. Later on, reference is made to George ‘Geordie’ Geddes, a real-life character who did rescue thirty-five people from the River Clyde between 1845 and 1860, and who recovers Bella Baxter’s body from that waterway.

Illustrations are attributed to the artist William Strang, although they are one hundred percent A. Gray. Our editor then preempts comparisons to other novels such as James Hogg’s The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner and James Boswell’s Life of Samuel Johnson (both of which are pertinent, as is Frankenstein, The Island of Doctor Moreau and many more) by getting in there first, and in doing so exhibits his own love of books and breadth of reading.

He even offers different options as to how Poor Things can be read: ‘Readers who want nothing but a good story plainly told should go at once to the main part of the book. Professional doubters may enjoy it more after first scanning this table of events.’

With all of Alasdair Gray’s fiction, it pays to be a professional doubter.

Image credits: Courtesy of The Alasdair Gray Archive

Gray plays with the form of the novel in a number of ways. As well as ‘Strang’s’ portraits of the central characters, there are beautiful and anatomically accurate depictions of body parts as you would find in Gray’s Anatomy, often disturbing pages purported to be hand-written by Bella, letters from Wedderburn and later Victoria McCandless, as well as maps and illustrations of places in and around the city, and critical and historical notes once again proffered by Alasdair Gray.

What strikes you as you read is that this is a novel where the joy of creating leaps off the page. The construction is undoubtedly painstaking – every word considered carefully, not only in what it says but how it sits on the page. For instance, the last lines of every one of Archie’s chapters are centred, and Bella’s developing speech is initially reproduced phonetically, in capitals and without vowels, making the reader concentrate not only on what is being said, but how and why.

For Gray, the blank page is not simply a chance for literary expression. There is an artistry involved which is all his own. It reflects the author, in that the things he loves and is passionate about (the themes he explores through Bella) are taken incredibly seriously, but never himself. The result is characters – particularly the men – who are flawed and foolish, puffed up with self-importance and pomposity, but often trying to do the right thing. At least, that is what they seem to believe, although self-deception is also on show.

Image credits: Courtesy of The Alasdair Gray Archive

Fittingly, Poor Things is an experiential novel. You don’t simply read it: you enter into it, interact with it. It’s challenging, thought-provoking, emotional, comedic, tragic, and utterly captivating. One reading is not enough, unless that’s the way you want it. Gray offers the illusion that the reader is in charge, even as he pulls all the strings. If you are an Alasdair Gray fan, you are aware of all these things, but if not: what a perfect place to start. It could be the beginning of a beautiful relationship.

To learn more about Poor Things, check out the Alasdair Gray Archive’s Digital Guide. It’s a collaborative project that shares the many people and places that inspired the novel.

Poor Things is published by Bloomsbury Publishing

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