Jeanette Win­ter­son in­vokes Mary Shel­ley to make sense of her past, while pre­dict­ing a scary fu­ture

India Today - - LEISURE - —Latha Anan­thara­man

In the two sto­ries that run par­al­lel through Jeanette Win­ter­son’s new novel Frankissst­ein, the older one is strangely more grip­ping, even though we know how it ends. Mary Shel­ley, suf­fer­ing a rainy week in a man­sion with her hus­band and Lord By­ron, among oth­ers, thinks up the scari­est story of her time—the tale of Vic­tor Franken­stein, a ‘modern Prometheus’ who en­vi­sions a bet­ter hu­man be­ing but ends up cre­at­ing a mon­ster. The later story is also about a sci­en­tist, Vic­tor Stein, who de­vel­ops ar­ti­fi­cial in­tel­li­gence that goes on to learn by it­self, to a point where even its in­ven­tors can­not con­trol it or pre­dict how it will evolve.

Win­ter­son does not sim­ply en­ter Shel­ley’s mind, she wears Shel­ley’s skin. In Shel­ley’s voice she cre­ates the pal­pa­ble un­ease as well as the breath­tak­ing imag­i­na­tion of the pre­co­cious writer ges­tat­ing her novel. Win­ter­son’s Mary Shel­ley goes on to bear, and bury, four chil­dren with Percy Shel­ley, an un­com­mon mind trapped in crino­lines. One day she vis­its Bed­lam to meet a man who in­sists she has

cre­ated him. Vic­tor lives more vividly for Mary, and for us, than does the fad­ing Percy.

In the present-day thread, it is the doc­tor and trans­gen­der Ry Shel­ley (once Mary) who records the work of Vic­tor Stein. Ry sup­plies Vic­tor with body parts for his ex­per­i­ments with pros­thet­ics and the spark be­tween them soon flow­ers into love. Bang in the mid­dle of the book, he asks Ry for a head. Specif­i­cally, he wants Ry to re­trieve the cryo­geni­cally pre­served head of Jack Good, who fore­saw the last hu­man in­ven­tion—a ma­chine so in­tel­li­gent that it would see to all fu­ture in­ven­tions.

The man who is ca­pa­ble of car­ry­ing out the in­cre­men­tal steps that re­alise these vi­sions must him­self be­come mon­strous, as both these Vic­tors do.

It’s a novel you want to read all at once. It has its bores, es­pe­cially Lord By­ron and his avatar, the sexboto­b­sessed Ron Lord. But bots have swayed elec­tions and chim­phu­man chimeras have been bred, so this could be the scari­est story of our time. ■

FRANKISSST­EIN A Love Story by Jeanette Win­ter­son JONATHAN CAPE VIN­TAGE `599; 352 pages

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