BOOK REVIEW / The body in question comes to life: 'Poor Things' - Alasdair Gray: Bloomsbury, 14.99

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Unwrap the jacket from Alasdair Gray's new novel and you find blocked in silver on the hard covers, front and back, a row of thistles and the motto, 'Work as if you live in the early days of a better nation'. To set Scots a striving example, Gray has not only illustrated and designed the book himself, he has provided his own blurb, in alternative 'high- class' and 'popular' versions, and even his own reviews. The reviews purport to come from cliquey London papers and are patronisingly negative, which is taking the nationalist underdog posture a bit far, since the actual notices are liable to be good. This one, at least, is a fairly straight recommendation to buy.

The book is a spoof Victorian memoir by a Glasgow doctor, Archibald McCandless, recounting how he met and courted his wife Bella, who later became the city's first female medical student and a famous, if failed, social reformer. The story has its sensational side in that Bella is a reanimated corpse. McCandless's gifted friend Baxter, a police surgeon, took a pregnant young beauty who drowned herself in the Clyde, and gave her the still-living brain of her own eight-month foetus.

Baxter then educates the girl from her infant state, inventing a tale of parents killed in a train crash which destroyed her memory. Gray thus plays with several Victorian literary forms at once. Added to the weird Frankenstein- type science fiction is the Butlerian account of the growth of a mind, as innocent Bella discovers the ways of the world, and on top of that is the good old race to the altar. Baxter created Bella for himself, of course, but his hideousness is against him there. Eager to experiment, she elopes around the world with a rakish lawyer, exhausts and outgrows him and returns for McCandless. All does not yet run smooth, as there is still the matter of her first husband, General Blessington VC, the one she killed herself to escape.

Gray's introduction explains that this volume, privately printed in one copy only, turned up on a solicitor's skip in the 1970s when no descendants survived to claim it. He makes a solemn show of believing every impossible word of it but dutifully prints as a tail-piece the affidavit from Bella herself, by then known as Victoria McCandless MD, stating that her late husband Archie made it all up out of jealousy. Baxter, she says, was the only man she ever loved, the friend who sheltered her when she fled the General's clutches, and she only married McCandless because Baxter wouldn't have her.

Furthermore she finds this sort of fantasy distasteful to her modern sensibilities, 'as sham-gothic as the Scott Monument', and her own portrayal absurd: 'I am a plain, sensible woman, not the naive Lucrezia Borgia and La Belle Dame Sans Merci described in the text.' Gray suggests she is merely covering her embarrassment at her unusual origins.

Since the whole thing is a novel, you can naturally apportion belief however you like. Bella-Victoria does not actually disown her long letter, written to Baxter on her world travels, which forms a large part of McCandless's text, and a few tear-stained pages of which are given in facsimile. She ages mentally from about 10 to 20 in the months taken to write it, and Gray handles the style beautifully as it grows in sophistication but keeps its child-like clarity.

The crux comes when Bella meets an American missionary and an English businessman on board a cruise ship. Provoked by her innocence, they show her the horrors of the Alexandrian slums and she breaks down. The American promises that the whole world will soon be civilised by cross and machine-gun, the fatalistic Englishman that one day Londoners will be 'retrieving coins flung into the Thames by Tibetan tourists who find the sight amusing'.

Despite the heavy-duty research into Victorian medicine, social conditions, customs, language and so on, Gray is writing largely about nowadays: about neo-Victorianism, neo-colonialism and indeed feminism, though women readers may well be uncomfortable with this jokey approach to the male fantasy of 'the soul of an innocent, trusting, dependent child inside the opulent body of a radiantly lovely woman'.

Gray is also writing about what Edward Bond used to call 'the necessity for socialism' (if your memory goes back that far), but in a shrugging, half-resigned way. His bogus footnotes quote Beatrice Webb, the Daily Express and diverse other sources on Bella- Victoria's later career, her 'embarrassing affairs with Wells and Ford Madox Hueffer', her trial on abortion charges, her unsaleable book A Loving Economy. Her busy, practical optimism comes to seem as cranky as her husband's dark romantic imaginings. She addresses her affidavit to the children of a brighter and better future she already sees beginning, and signs it with the date 1 August 1914.

Gray's ingenious structuring supports these bundles of opposed ideas with ease and humour, and he gives the book the high Victorian virtue of page- turning, what-next excitement. It is a brilliant piece of work and, given all the pictures and things, remarkably good value too.