Thursday, April 4, 2013

The Corruptions of the Gothic: A Review of The Luminous Memories of Alexander Vile


 by Tash Jones (available for Amazon Kindle March 25, 2013; www.tashjones.co.uk)

This debut novel from Masters student Tash Jones is a compelling mirror-glance journey into the effects of the Gothic novel on Victorian sensibilities. While both referencing outright and adapting subtle elements of Walpole’s Castle of Otranto, Stoker’s Dracula, Shelley’s Frankenstein, Stevenson’s Jekyll and Hyde, and Austen’s Northanger Abbey, The Luminous Memories of Alexander Vile concerns itself with pulling back the layers of appearance and looking at the arts and their relationship to the dark side of Victorian-era values (the novel’s events take place in 1892–93).
Uses the standard Gothic conventions of diaries, letters, and narration, Vile is a mystery that is slowly pieced together, reading at times like the surrealism of Poe, with generous doses of the flowery, image-laden and complexly sytaxed prose of the time in which it takes place.
It is a story of people who are ruled by their passions and the domino effect of disruption and downfall which they produce on those around them.
The story is told to us by the maid who seems to be a surrogate for the wife of the title character. One senses an unrequited love—that old dramatic chestnut of the wealthy man of the house looking beyond her because she is the maid, although one feels that she might have saved him from himself, and saved some others in the bargain. She is sympathetic to the man whose story she feels compelled to tell, and she tells the stories of the others only by necessity. Two thirds of the way through the novel she interprets the flowery prose of Alexander into a coherent story, pushing forward the plot and allowing the author to deal in the surreal without losing the reader.
Alexander Vile is a pianist who loves poetry and painting. He strives to be The Artist, relying on the arts to create meaning in his drab and difficult world. When one thinks about the fascinating artists of the Victorian era, there is plenty of material on which to draw, and Jones’s exploration of the condition of the artist is deep and engaging.
During the story there are sections of well-written poetry to give us clues to backstory and subtleties of plot, functioning like songs in a musical.
I want to tread carefully, and not give too much away, for the charm and strength of the story is its mystery. But essential to the plot is Vile’s dead wife. She was a painter and he tells us both that they were deeply love but also that she loved her art more than him. Their relationship deteriorates, as does she, following a miscarriage. We don’t get the sense that Vile wanted a child, but agreed only to please his wife. He fears that should the child not be perfect, he would be blamed. Parents and parenting have their rightful Victorian importance in the book, and when their efforts after the miscarriage bear no fruit and Alexander finally tells her how he feels, he says her “mind was dead.” The wife dies, the exact cause a mystery.
He is wealthy, living a life of mostly solitude, his desire to create music outweighing his talent, a la Salieri in Peter Shaffer’s Amadeus. He is searching for meaning and unable to find it. He spends a great deal of time reading in his expansive library. He reminds me of the decadent and bored young men in novels like Wilde’s Picture of Dorian Gray, the Comte Lautreamont’s Maldoror, and Huysman’s A Rebours. His voice is also reminiscent of Poe’s more lucid narrators.
Following his wife’s death, he seeks to grant her wish by adopting a child from the local orphanage. After determining a boy would be best, he cannot bring himself to make a choice, so he leaves it to the orphanage to choose a suitable child and when the child arrives it is a young lady named Joanna.
Joanna sparks something in Vile (she is [perhaps intentionally so] named the same as the Judge’s ward in Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd). She quotes Jane Austen to him and tells him of her love of other writers, such as Wilde and the Brontes. He in turn teaches her to play piano.
Joanna too has an emptiness, which she divulges through poems as an intense loss about her biological parents and their untimely death.
All might be well if it were not for a rival for her affections, the well-to-do and aptly named Vincent Valentine, who as one might guess in stories such as these, asks for her hand in marriage.
The novel works its way through several corollary themes, including: Corruption, Nature vs. Nurture. Art vs. Intellect (or Dionysus vs. Apollo), and Science vs. Faith. Vincent’s brother Christian represents the latter.
The Luminous Memories of Alexander Vile is quite the complex mystery, feeding back into endings that could be chosen from almost all of the books referenced within.
If you like a good Gothic novel, you’ll thoroughly enjoy The Luminous Memories of Alexander Vile. As an added incentive, the author donating £1 of each book sale, split equally between ‘Great Ormond Street Hospital’ and ‘Greenpeace.’

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