Will Starling, the second novel from B.C. screenwriter, playwright and novelist Ian Weir (whose first novel, Daniel O'Thunder, was shortlisted for multiple awards), is a rollicking thrill-ride, a 19th-century-style potboiler in both form and content. It's also a remarkably subversive novel, a dense inner heart of darkness lurking under the surface hijinks and thrills.
All should be rosy. The novel is set in London in early 1816, mere months after the defeat of Napoleon at Waterloo and the city is experiencing a joyous spring, "a new energy surging through the Metropolis, after a lean and hungry decade."
But that is not the world that Will Starling knows. A teenage survivor of the war, in which he worked as an assistant to Mr. Comrie, a battlefield surgeon, Starling lives in a lower London, a place of muck and putrescence, of veterans not celebrating, but "missing bits, to be sure; an arm or a leg." It's a world of devastating poverty, where life is essentially worthless, but death… well, a dead body will fetch four pounds on the black market, and an entire economy of grave robbers, anatomists and surgeons has sprung up around the deceased – the fresher the better.
At the top of this economy is Dionysus Atherton, golden boy of London's medical community (literally: Weir makes much of his flowing golden locks). Unlike Starling's mentor and protector Mr. Comrie, who is attempting to establish a legitimate medical practice in the city's poorer quarters, Atherton keeps the grave-robbers, the Doomsday Men, busy, with a constant flow of bodies into his elegant home (decorated with specimens ranging from preserved animals and fetuses to reconstructed skeletons, the ages of which are distressingly difficult to determine). What is he doing in that house, and in the locked laboratory in the stable behind? What of those mysterious shadows in the windows, and the jagged crackles of electricity?
We're in the world of Frankenstein here (it's likely no coincidence that Mary Shelley's novel was first published in 1818), and Weir does an impressive job of forestalling the reader's expectations, playing with their preconceptions when it comes to matters of resurrection and doctors playing God.
Playing with and subverting readerly expectations seems to be key to Will Starling. We know, as we start to read, what we're in for. Or we think we do. All of the elements are in place: a noble hero (a foundling no less). A comely love interest. An over-the-top villain. Scenes in tenements and rainy graveyards. Surgical horrors. We know what's coming: there will be adventures, a few close calls, and, ultimately, a happy ending, with love and the noble orphan triumphant.
In Will Starling, none of that is a given.
This canny, almost giddy, subversion begins with Starling himself. The 19-year-old, whose earliest memory is of the wet nurse to which he was assigned, "a red hand hoisting a vast white blue-veined breast" takes charge of the story, referring to himself as "Your Umble Narrator," deftly veering around questions of how he could know what happened in scenes during which he was not present. We're in the hands of the consummate unreliable narrator, though it takes a while to realize just how unreliable Starling truly is, and why.
That uncertainty serves to fuel what amounts to a shadow narrative: even as the reader is caught up in the events of the story, which proceeds in a fairly predictable manner at first, the question of Starling's reliability lurks just beneath the surface, rising slowly as the traditional narrative begins to fall apart, as the bodies begin to pile up.
The narrative subversion is assisted by how compelling and convincing the novel is overall. Yes, there's a henchman who might as well be twirling a mustache, but the significant characters are well-developed and complex. Similarly, London itself is realistically drawn. Is it historically accurate? The material is so well-handled, it doesn't really matter; it has the ring of truth. In the same way, the novel, rendered as a pastiche of 19th-century fiction, feels true, and entirely fitting for the material, although one suspects the academics and fans of the period might have reason to balk.
Reading Will Starling is a delight, though not in the way readers might expect at the outset. Weir's deft play with the characters and the narrative serves to unsettle and disturb, resulting in a novel that is at once rewarding and heartbreaking, satisfying on both intellectual and emotional levels. Yes, it sags a little in the middle, but that is of little consequence: Will Starling – both the character and the book – is a splendid literary achievement, and a genuine pleasure.
Robert Wiersema's new novel, Black Feathers, will be published next year.