Can a writer today compose a book in a vintage mode of storytelling without being postmodern or ironic or snarky or winking? In any other field of craftsmanship, such a question would be ridiculous. If I buy a new Adirondack chair for my porch, I do not think twice about the furniture possibly being some kind of “reinterpretation” or “detournement” of the classical Adirondack chair, nor is that even a desideratum. A freshly purchased Adirondack chair is simply a valuable instance in a new generation of an established tradition, a perfected design that works.
But because every novel is supposed to be unique—and indeed they should be, in terms of character and plot and prose and conceptualization, etc., insofar as a writer’s individual talents can achieve—we tend to expect that somehow each author—if they are not a mere “hack”—should also reinvent the vessel of the novel itself. But that seems to me unnecessary and counterproductive, at least every time out of the gate. Experimentalism and innovation, yes: but not necessarily with every book. There should be plenty of honor and craft in writing a fresh, authentic and honest example of an established type of book, without radical rejiggerings of form.
That is precisely what Ian Weir has done with Will Starling. He’s taken the kind of nascently-pre-Victorian narrative that might have been written by Fielding or Richardson or their slightly later compatriots (the book takes place in 1816), with that mode’s picaresque, loquacious, directly-address-the audience-baggy-pants-style, and created a new instance of such. No nudge-nudge or smarmy aren’t-we-superior attitude. Just a rollicking good tale in the manner of his literary ancestors. (And one good enough to make me already order up his prior book, Daniel O’Thunder.)
As I said, the year is 1816, the place London. Our “Wery Umble Narrator” is young Will Starling, former orphan, camp-follower and now assistant to a brash but compassionate Scottish surgeon named Dr. Alec Cromie. Will’s textual voice, on which any such novel must fly or crash, emerges from the start as engaging, wry, sympathetic, funny, introspective and unpretentious. We know directly that the narrative is going to be nicely and smartly composed. And in fact Will goes into some satisfying detail about how he is able to frame a seemingly omniscient account of the strange doings surrounding the person of rvial surgeon Dionysus Atherton.
Atherton patronizes grave robbers. He needs nice fresh corpses for his medical researches. His goals are not precisely Frankensteinian—though we must note the “coincidence” of the seminal year 1816, the year of Mary Shelley’s composition of a certain book—but rather revivifying. Atherton is intent on resurrecting dead men, proving that medical science is superior to “Old Bones” himself.
Living in relative poverty with the principled and gruff Dr. Cromie, Will is generally content to ignore the odious and smug Atherton—until a lass he fancies, the aspiring actress and flower girl Miss Annie Smollett, gets swept up in Atherton’s nets. The incident involves a debauched tavern party gone wrong, resulting in the accidental death of one Bob Eldritch. When Bob remerges from his postmortem handling by Atherton as “Boggle-Eyed Bob,” the specter of London, the game, as they say, is truly afoot. In an intricate web of evil-doing, self-preservation and justice-seeking by numerous affected individuals, Will ultimately confronts Atherton, experiencing shocking revelations and dire consequences galore.
Weir has assembled a vast assortment of unforgettable characters here, granting each one full individuality and agency. From Jemmy Chesire, Resurrection Man, and his fierce mate Meg Nancarrow, to Atherton’s drug-addled housemaid Flitty Deakins and the monstrous, murderous Odenkirk, Atherton’s catspaw, the city of London comes alive with brawling, loving, laughing and weeping humanity. Additionally, we meet a few real-life figures, such as John Keats and thespian Edmund Kean. And the city itself is limned with grotty, gritty realism, full of evocative period details and customs. Consider the lurid description of the Death House at St. Thomas’s Hospital that opens Chapter 12.
Weir is particularly good at staging large set pieces, and there are two scenes at the end that pull out all the stops. One is allusive to Frankenstein, all flames and destruction, while the other, I feel confident, points us toward the great Tod Browning film Freaks. The Gothic is in full flower here. But generally Weir does not pastiche any famous books, and is instead, as I indicated at the start of this review, more interested in emulating a mode than in riding on the coattails of landmark stories.
In addition to all the great blood and thunder stuff, the novel also consists of several touching love stories. Will and Annie, Jemmy and Meg, Atherton and–well, you’ll see whom the self-centered doctor cares for. Aside from purely romantic love, Weir is also adept at illustrating other kinds of deep affection: that of Cromie for Will, Will’s for a crippled pal named Isaac Bliss, and the friendship bestowed upon Will by an old orphanage acquaintance, the foul-mouthed and gruff Janet Friendly. These ties are the engines of the tale.
Will’s autobiography reaches a nebulous conclusion, couched in mystery. But I tend to favor the most optimistic interpretation of events, and I think the author does too. But no matter what the terminal station is in Will’s life, you will agree that the journey there is all spark and boom and miracles.