Saturday, 25 November 2017

Neo-Victorian Voices: The Transformation, Catherine Chidgey (2005)

Tampa, Florida in 1898. The Tampa Bay Hotel looms over a city that enjoys endless summer, with the occasional hurricane, its minarets gleaming over swamps, orange groves, and displaced Cubans, who save up wages and lottery winnings to help their war-torn homeland.

The Transformation, Catherine Chidgey (2005)
Inside the hotel lives mysterious French wigmaker Lucien Goulet III. Residents and visitors flock to him for memorial jewellery, fashionable fringes, hairpieces to deceive their spouses and repairs to their rocking horses and dolls. And he mocks them all, in his disturbing first person narrative and with the pair of ‘actresses’ who perform for him at night.

Catherine Chidgey pulls off an incredible feat in pulling us into Goulet’s obsession. The novel’s many skeins are united by hair — hair cut off corpses in mausoleums, morgues and graves, hair stolen from lovers as they sleep, hair as the fabric of folktales and myth.

Goulet’s first person sections are interwoven with close third person passages following Rafael, a fifteen-year old cigar maker who enters the perruquier’s employ, and Marion Unger, a lonely widow with rare and entrancing white blonde hair. But it is Goulet who dominates — at once an outsider but also a reflection of this strange world where bodies are very much for sale. Ladies carry alligator handbags and deliver their dead pets to taxidermists, one character plucks out snails to amass a huge collection of their shells, cigars seem more valuable if rolled on Cuban women’s thighs.

Catherine Chidgey (1970- )
The novel’s biggest fault is that, rather than keeping you reading, often Chidgey seems to ask you to pause, to reread paragraphs loaded with such sensual detail they require time to take in. The opening pages, which deal with Marion’s arrival in Tampa and the history of her marriage, are a story in themselves — compelling, tragic, and enthused with the citrus fruits her husband chooses to plant. There’s a richness to the prose and imagery that can be overwhelming. I wanted to savour every line.

Immersed as the reader is in Goulet’s mind, its hard not to wish for a more brutal ending but the conclusion is still a fitting one. There are shades of Pygmalion here, and Patrick Süskind’s Perfume, but in a world that’s as alien as it is recognisable.

Do you know any novels set in the nineteenth century and written in the twenty-first that you think the Secret Victorianist should read? Let me know — here, on Facebook, on Google+ or by tweeting @SVictorianist.

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