Wednesday, 31 January 2018

Frankenstein at 200 – The Monster Re-Envisioned for 2018 –A Review of Shell by Paula Rawsthorne

Continuing our bicentenary celebrations of all things Frankenstein, we bring you a review of Paula Rawsthorne’s YA Frankenstein inspired YA Shell.

Published in early January this year, Shell hit bookshops almost 200 years to the day that Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein first editions appeared in print. Frankenstein is an obvious inspiration for Rawsthorne’s Shell, and indeed appears in the book in a literary equivalent of a TV or Movie camo.

Shell, follows the death and life of terminally ill teenager Lucy. The first chapter reads like a ‘sick-lit’ showing Lucy in hospital trying to prepare her optimistic, best friend Mak for the inevitable, until Lucy’s death at the end of the chapter. At this point Sick-Lit is definitely put to bed as Lucy’s body is buried, and Lucy regains consciousness.

Lucy is awake, alive, in pain, and confused, but soon discovers that her wealthy desperate parents have gone to extreme lengths to cheat death. With the assistance of Dr Radnor and his revolutionary, unsanctified, unregulated research, her brain and eyes have been transplanted into another body. The procedure is revolutionary and top secrets, so Lucy’s extra life is a poison chalice as she struggles to accept her new life and the donor’s faces that stares back at her from the mirror.

Lucy’s struggles with her place in the natural world and her questions about who she is are compounded when she returns home under the premise of troubled teen Renee who has been befriended by and staying with her parents. All the people she loves cannot know who she actually is and treat her with suspicion and hostility. Her Gran, best friend Mak and even her horse and beloved dog are terrified of her.

Lucy’s life seems destined to be one of solitude and deceit until she embraces her new Shell and begins to forge friendships with people that would have never given her a second glance in her own body. The harmony of her new life is on a knife edge when a movie of her is posted online and goes viral, igniting the interest of a boy from the other side of the world who is desperately seeking someone dear him. Someone with the same face, who has disappeared.

When Lucy uncovers the dark and deadly secrets about her resurrection, she becomes trapped in an intricate web of lies and deception. With no one to turn to, she is totally at the mercy of her parents and the obsessive Dr Radnor. Can she alone defeat the madness? Or dare she hope for help?

Shell is a page turning thriller, which has identity and friendship at its core. Emotional, exciting and engaging, it explores the notion of self – what makes us who we are, and acceptance as it follows the strained relationship of Mak and Renee to its conclusion.

With Shell Rawsthorne has created a Frankenstein for the twenty first century, carefully preserving the key themes but keeping it appealing for a YA audience. I know from experience that you can have a monster in a YA novel, as long as it’s sexy. Werewolf – Sexy = Good. Dog Headed Human – grotesque = bad. Patchwork corpse monster - grotesque = bad. New body which is a beautiful upgraded from the original – sexy = good. So Rawsthorne’s choice of an appealing Shell for Lucy to take on her adventure was definitely a good one! 

As in the original Shell has looked at current science procedures and how they may advance in the near future. After all in 2018 people having organ transplants is not science fiction, it is science, so the stretch to brain transplant seems feasible, much like Mary’s monster must have seem possible, two centuries ago at the time of scientific, surgical and electrical revolution.

Many of Mary’s themes of acceptance, sense of self and isolation is highlighted as Lucy questions her being, and is shunned by people. It isn’t as extreme as the Monsters experience but again, it is perfectly pitched for its target audience, after all what teenager isn’t concerned with the notion of being unaccepted and ostracised by their peers?

As for the Scientist, the iconic Victor Frankenstein, in Shell Dr Radnor is a charismatic, talented, obsessive genius. He is on the surface a Victor for the twenty first century however he differs from Mary original. Victor Frankenstein is indeed vain, obsessive and misguided, but he is hounded by the turmoil of his moral campus, spending the whole book endeavouring to rectify his actions, but ever tormented by the knowledge that there is no moral right answer, that he cannot save the Monster, humanity and his family. In short Victor is emphatic and as a reader you feel sorry for him as much as you do for his creation. Radnor by comparison has a moral compass that is decisively stuck on amoral. He is dark, manipulative villain with no redeeming qualities. But if like in Shelley’s original the scientist a metaphor for something else – government, ruling classes or even multinational companies - the profiteering and vain Radnor has indeed hit’s the nail on the head.

With Shell Paula Rawsthorne has brought Frankenstein up to date for a modern audience whilst being sympathetic to the source material, whilst also referencing other–re-envisioning’s with shades of Masamune Shirow's ‘Ghost in a Shell’ and Joss Whedon’s Dollhouse. Shell is a brilliant read as a standalone book, but also a great text to use as an introduction to the original or to be read alongside Shelley’s original. I believe it would also go well as an addition to a YA Frankenstein Story Sack.

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