In this, Ackroyd's latest novel, Victor Frankenstein is a contemporary and companion of Percy Bysshe Shelley at Oxford before Shelley gets sent down for publishing an atheistic pamphlet. Frankenstein eventually cuts short his own studies and joins his friend in London. Here he attends lectures on the new science of electricity and as an amateur anatomist wonders if it can be used to reanimate corpses.
After inheriting money upon the death of his father, he makes the acquaintance of a group of resurrection men who provide him with the cadavers he needs for his experimentation. But he unwittingly unleashes a terrible beast into the world...
I thoroughly enjoyed this, as I have all of Ackroyd's fiction (and non-fiction) that I've read. Here he carefully interposes a fictional character created by another writer - i.e. Victor Frankenstein - into the lives of real historical (mostly literary) figures, and adds his own excellent fictional characters to the mix - Fred Shoebury, his mother etc. He's done this many times before of course, and this is one of his strengths.
The author has great fun with the major poets of the period. In addition to the fanciful and excitable Shelley, he also has cameos for Coleridge, Southey and Wordsworth, among others and there's lots of scholarly in-jokes (you won't believe the former identity of the monster he creates!) However, his greatest portrait is that of the fiercely intelligent and impulsive Lord Byron, who grows increasingly impossible and fiery as he's taken over by the demons that live within him.
And as Shelley's in here so is his wife Mary - the writer of the original `Frankenstein' novel. One scene is set in the chateau near Lake Geneva which saw the genesis of the original book.
This novel brilliantly evokes the sights, sounds and smells of pre-Victorian London. His descriptions of the stinking, muddy streets, the effluence of the Thames, the dark, low-ceilinged inns, the charnel houses. He's also clever at using place names that resonate with historical significance: Cheapside, Limehouse, St Pancras, Clerkenwell... Ackroyd is a master of the idioms of the time and there is not one single word of his narrative or dialogue that does not feel authentic.
I read the last few pages with my heart beating so fast I could hear it, but I don't know whether I was completely happy with the ending or not - which is why I've dropped a star. However, I am sure there will be many among its other readers who will think it brilliant.
Peter Ackroyd is a bona fide genius and we should treasure him.