Everybody's had a feeling of being burned at the end of a relationship, but in Andrew Davidson's first novel, The Gargoyle, the flames come at the very beginning of the love story, when the book's unlikable, unnamed narrator crashes his car while driving under the influence of drugs and alcohol.
Trapped in the fiery wreck, he suffers third- and fourth-degree burns over most of his body and is forced to spend more than a year in a specialized pressure garment. The experience leaves him scarred, but also unexpectedly changed:
"Only after I was born into physical repulsiveness did I come to glimpse the possibilities of the heart: I accepted this atrocious face and abominable body because they were forcing me to overcome the limitations of who I am, while my previous body allowed me to hide them."
While recovering in a hospital, he meets Marianne Engel, a sculptor of grotesque gargoyles, who tells him stories of past lives in which she claims they were lovers. The settings of her tales range from ninth century Iceland to 13th century Germany and beyond.
Davidson says he had dreamed of Marianne's character — a woman with wild hair and eyes to match — and began writing the novel when a particularly vivid vision ensured he could no longer ignore her.
"This character came to me and said, 'OK, here I am and you're going to listen to me,' " he remembers. "She wasn't going to leave me alone if I didn't."
As Marianne and the narrator learn about each other's past and present lives, Davidson draws the reader into the couple's unorthodox, platonic romance.
"One of the questions that I always ask myself when developing characters is who do they love, why do they love this person and what happened in that relationship?" says Davidson. "If you know who somebody loves, [then] you know who that person is."
I once knew a woman who liked to imagine Love in the guise of a sturdy dog, one that would always chase down the stick after it was thrown and return with his ears flopping around happily. Completely loyal, completely unconditional. And I laughed at her, because even I knew that love is not like that. Love is a delicate thing that needs to be cosseted and protected. Love is not robust and love is not unyielding. Love can crumble under a few harsh words, or be tossed away with a handful of careless actions. Love isn't a steadfast dog at all; love is more like a pygmy mouse lemur.
Yes that's exactly what love is: a tiny, jittery primate with eyes that are permanently peeled open in fear. For those of you who cannot quite picture a pygmy mouse lemur, imagine a miniature Don Knotts or Steve Buscemi wearing a fur coat. Imagine the cutest animal you can, after it has been squeezed so hard that all its stuffing has been pushed up into an oversized head and its eyes are now popping out in overflow. The lemur looks so vulnerable that one cannot help but worry that predator might swoop in at any instant to snatch it away.
Marianne Engel's love for me seemed built on so flimsy a premise that I assumed it would come apart the moment we stepped through the hospital doors. How could a love based on a fictional past survive into an actual future? It was impossible. That kind of love was a thing to be snatched up and crushed in the jaws of real life.
That was my fear but this Christmas Day had shown me that Marianne Engel's love was not feeble. It was strapping, it was muscular, it was massive. I thought that it could fill the entire hospital. More important, her love was not reserved only for me; it was shared generously with strangers — people she didn't think were friends from the fourteenth century.
All my life I had heard foolish stories about love: that the more you give away, the more you have. This has always struck me as nothing more than a violation of basic mathematical principles. But watching Marianne Engel share her love so widely awakened in me the weirdest of romantic feelings: the opposite of jealousy.