Saturday, April 21, 2012

Phantom Genesis: Susan Kay's "Phantom"

Jennifer Linforth's seductive series gave us a look at Erik and his future. But what of Erik and his origins? Where did he come from? What sort of life had he led that brought him to the depths of the Paris Opera House? Susan Kay's classic was perhaps the first, the first I've ever read, anyway, that took Gaston Leroux's character and created a whole life around him.
Written in segments and alternating viewpoints this spellbinding story is operatic in scope. Beginning before Erik's birth, his mother, Madeleine, is a great and spoiled beauty always getting what she wants including a brilliant and handsome architect husband. Their life together seems like a fairytale... until the day he leaves his newly pregnant wife to visit a building site and never returns, alive, that is.
Madeleine is devastated but at least she has her child to look forward to. Surely he would take after his father and be a tribute to his memory.
Erik enters the world unloved by his shallow mother. The first piece of clothing she sews for him is a mask.  As a boy, his genius is evident at an early age. He longs for affection from his mother who can't give it and responds with cruelty. Eventually, at the age of nine, he runs away only to face a harsher existence as a gypsy side-show freak caged and exhibited. Not long after he commits his first murder.
From this point, Erik wanders the world, expanding his talents and skills at every level. He apprentices to a master mason who treats him respectfully and with great kindness. Later, he meets the Persian, Nadir, Daroga of Mazanderan who was sent to bring Erik back to the court for the shah who has heard wondrous tales of the magician brought back by travelers. Forced to create amusements for the shah and his mother, including some unique torture devices he tempers this madness with affection for Nadir's son. 
His journey takes him to Paris and a friendship with the architect and designer of the Paris Opera House, Charles Garnier, and the plans for the labyrinthine world beneath the Opera House begin to form and take shape ultimately leading him to Christine. This is a story filled with heartache and an overwhelming poignancy for the man who was brilliant among all others but vilified and feared for his face. Erik's never ending hope for love and affection throughout his life is heartbreaking and the last chapter will bring a surprise that will leave no reader unmoved.
Susan Kay's "Phantom" is a masterpiece that gives us an Erik who is sharply alive and ready to take you by the hand and lead you into his dark and tragic world.

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