The unnamed narrator and protagonist of this novel is a former porn actor, producer, writer, etc., who has been justifiably (?) proud of his looks for years. However, when we first meet him, he is in hospital, severely burned – after an hallucination while driving caused him to swerve off the road and crash his car. Now he has lost those looks and turned into a shocking mess, and lost his penis, too. He describes the pain of being burned, horrifyingly, and makes us understand his previous loveless existence: though at this point, he isn’t really aware of it. Davidson has obviously done his research – his account of the protagonist’s treatment and hospital stay is described in some detail, and is very interesting: I liked, for example, the appearance of ‘the bitchsnake’ curling around his body and whispering in his head all the lowest thoughts he has.
Whilst in hospital, he meets Marianne Engel, revealed to be a sometime patient there, as well as a successful sculptor of gargoyles and other fantastical creatures. She expects him to know her: when he doesn’t she tells him that they met back in mid 14th century Germany: he was a badly burned mercenary, brought to the monastery of Engelthal for treatment; she was a nun who nursed him back to health. Naturally, they fell in love. While the narrator find himself gradually coming to like Marianne, and then to love her, he find himself uncertain about whether or not her story is true, or whether she is simply deluded.
As he gradually recovers from the worst of the accident, he makes real friends, is released to live with Marianne and to be cared for by her, and to learn how to love. Put simply, that is the plot, intertwined with Marianne’s narrative of their life together in mediaeval Germany, and her stories of four people – two men and two women – whose death-defying love are touching.
The book is an interesting read, but the big problem is that the central, contemporary, love story is not quite convincing enough, although Marianne’s narrative of their former lives is. At the end of the book, one is supposed to believe that her story was true, and that she wasn’t just schizophrenically deluded, but I have my doubts! My favourite bit was his decription of his travels through Hell while withdrawing from morphine – through the Norse frozen Hel, and something like Dante’s vision of it, to finally reach forgiveness and renounce addiction. The book does hold the attention, though, and the story well told. I can’t, however, recommend it unreservedly.