A review that originally appeared in The Third Alternative #28:-
THE MERCIFUL WOMEN
Black Swan pb, 188pp, £6.99
Switzerland in 1816, and the poets Byron and Shelley with their women arrive at the Villa Diodati on Lake Geneva. Last and least in their entourage is Byron’s physician, the despised John Polidori, a man whose ambition far exceeds his reach. Polidori learns that the notorious Legrand Sisters are nearby, two women who were once stars of vaudeville, renowned for both their beauty and promiscuity, but it is the mysterious third sister, whose existence is unknown to the world, from whom he receives a secret communication. A deformed monster driven by a terrible craving, Annette offers Polidori the literary fame for which he hungers in exchange for his help in satisfying her own needs, and so a monstrous bargain is sealed, one with far reaching consequences.
In one sense this is a slight book (only 186 pages and many of them blank, with generous print throughout), and Andahazi is not the first to be fascinated by the events that preceded Mary Shelley’s creation of Frankenstein, but seldom has the material received such an original and clever treatment.
An Argentinian, one cover blurb compares Andahazi to Gabriel Garcia Marquez, but his writing is not as lyrical as the rich prose of Love in the Time of Cholera. Rather it is his fellow countryman, Jorge Luis Borges who springs to mind. The Merciful Women lacks the mock serious tone of Borges, is a more breathless concoction altogether, but there is the same love of games, the same blurring of the boundaries between fact and fiction (e.g. the Legrand Sisters are descendants of the protagonist in Poe’s The Gold Bug), the same obsessiveness regarding literature and libraries, and at the end there is a revelation wholly worthy of the author of Labyrinths, one that suggests we revise all our ideas of literary history. This is not a great book, but it is a clever and intriguing fusion of sex, history, horror, literature, and humour, one that captures successfully the flavour of its progenitors while infecting the narrative with a spirit of playfulness that is uniquely its own, and it should be enjoyed by anyone with an interest in such matters.