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Masque

Bethany W. Pope

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ISBN-13: 
9781781723241
Publication Date: 
Thursday, June 16, 2016
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‘A novel richly layered with both gothic appeal and intellectual depth’ – Wales Arts Review

‘A tale full of vigour and action: the author employs the genre of the Gothic novel with effortless mastery’ – Ofi Press

 

Masque is a richly gothic retelling of Gaston Leroux’s phantom of the opera story by debut novelist Bethany W Pope. Centre stage is promising young singer Christine, who, despite being devoted to her art, attracts the attention of both the Phantom (Erik), and rich Parisian theatre owner Raoul.

The intensely ambitious Christine finds herself caught between the twin evils of the Phantom’s murderous pursuit of artistic perfection and Raoul’s ‘romantic’ vision of her as a bourgeois wife. Her own desire to follow her operatic career becomes her guiding light, but none of the three leading characters can control the directions in which their passions lead them, while the beautiful masked skull of the opera house itself looms large over their respective fates. The resulting mix of love, rage, art and murderous intent, is explosive.

Love, lust, adventure, romance, and the monstrous nature of unfulfilled creativity await you here.

Everyone wears a mask. Look beneath it, if you dare.

REVIEWS

Review by Enikö Jakab, Ofi Press

Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Masque by Bethany W Pope is the clever and passionate retelling of The Phantom of the Opera. It is a tale full of vigour and action: the author employs the genre of the Gothic novel with effortless mastery, from the settings – the streets of 19th-century Paris, the gloriously monstrous Opera House, or far-away exotic locations – to the images used (most prominently, mirrors and masks, opening up possibilities for deeply symbolic interpretation), creating a mesmerising atmosphere and establishing an almost visceral closeness to the characters.

The timeline, the narrative structure and the alternating viewpoints bring dynamism into the text. There are three narrators and three timelines: the present: rather enigmatic at first, with hints of untold tragedies; the childhood of each protagonist; and – placed in the centre, as it is indeed the heart of the plot – the storyline leading to a version of the tumultuous events known from Gaston Leroux’s Phantom of the Opera. The three narrators are the principal characters from the original story, though each comes with a twist: Christine here is a talented artist who chose her career path deliberately – a far cry from the naïve and penniless girl of the original story; there is spoiled, arrogant Raoul, leading the charmed and sheltered life of a French aristocrat, in love with the memory of a very young Christine; and Erik, who comes to be called the ‘Ghost’ of the Opera, born with deformities condemning him to a solitary existence, denied everyday human contact and even motherly love, yet blessed with a brilliant mind and talent.

The text opens with an older Christine, celebrated prima donna at the Opera Garnier in Paris, looking back on her youth, the debut of her career. Young Christine is advised to take lessons from a mysterious “master” who is never in direct contact with her – during their lessons, there is always a physical barrier between them to prevent Christine looking at him closely. Her career is just taking off as Raoul, ‘the boy from the beach’, reappears. Unlike in the original story, Christine sees Raoul as a menace, a direct threat to her career (as he is the brother of her employer), so following the advice of her ‘master’, she seemingly accepts his advances while she is making plans to secure her emotional and artistic independence.

Beyond the intricate story, the text reads as a fierce manifesto about art and love, explored through the vehicles of the characters and the plot. Christine, a dedicated artist, declares to Raoul that singing is her priority. Raoul, however, is blinded by his own interpretation. He considers himself the saviour of Christine as he is unable to grasp the reality of Christine’s personality (Christine often mentions that whatever she tells Raoul, he never really hears it). He plans to marry her and turn her into a sort of ‘Angel in the House’: a docile, submissive creature, forbidden to sing in public. He violates her boundaries: reads her messages, spies on her, literally stalks her. His obsession is based on his own projections instead of the recognition or appreciation of her authentic self.

On the other hand, Christine and Erik have surprisingly much in common. Both orphaned at a young age, they eventually rise into a somewhat privileged position through their talent and the right kind of love – one which provides emotional validation and financial support. We learn that there is a countess, a legal guardian who gladly supports Christine’s studies, sublimating her genuine feelings for her into a form which is emotionally acceptable for both. And it turns out that Erik used to be the protégé of Master Garnier, constructor of the Opera House, who came to love him almost as his son, despite his deformities.

The relationship between Christine and Erik is a combination of the classic master-pupil dynamic and that of Beauty and the Beast, also evoking the myths of Pygmalion and that of Faust. There is an intense connection between the two from the moment they first meet: ‘He turned (...) and looked at me. I do not know if I can tell you what it is like to really be looked at, to feel a mind, alien to yours, attempting to bore beneath your skin and understand the composition of your true, your human bones’. The author gives an emotionally credible, touching account of how their intimacy develops, and how both are unaware of their genuine feelings for each other for a very long time, mistaking it for a sort of parental/filial love. Still, the element of the grotesque is always there as a balance against any kind of sentimentality, and their relationship is characterised by a mix of attraction and repulsion: Erik’s deformities are described in detail, and Christine, notwithstanding her feelings for him, vomits when she first sees him without his mask.

Moreover, for all his romantic gestures, the ‘Ghost’ is far from being a hero: he can be emotionally distant, calculating, and he commits murders in cold blood to secure his goals. Uncompromising in creating perfect art, he abhors complacency and mediocrity, preferring glorious failure over them: ‘there are few things in this world more depressing than unfulfilled potential’, he states, and never shies away from human sacrifice (‘According to Madame Giry he made the walls weep blood (...) and, in time, the musicians who hit their notes flat and the clumsiest dancers began disappearing’). His approach to life and art is almost utilitarian, as revealed when he reflects on Bizer’s lack of success: “Ah, what did it matter? The music would live. The body would compost. Such was its nature.”
Christine has an altogether more humanistic take on art and life. We can see how she approaches art with compassion, and ponders on its transformative nature: ‘As for my role, this Carmen, I loved and hated her (...) And yet, when I became her on the stage, when I wore her skin, everything that confused me about her character suddenly made sense. The Gypsy took over. My flesh, my face, was simply the mask she wore, my voice the instrument she sang through.’ Much as she appreciates art, she does not value it over life: she forbids the Ghost to commit any more murders for her sake, and, eventually, she consciously chooses to sacrifice her independence and career in order to save Erik and rescue his legacy.

Masque, the first novel of poet Bethany W Pope, reveals that the author is a born storyteller: her sensual descriptions, her wit and sarcasm, her empathy for the characters (Little Meg is unforgettable and her fate is heart-wrenching), and the energy of the narration make a highly entertaining read without compromising artistic integrity.

Review by Rachel Carney, Created to Read

Friday, August 5, 2016

Why would someone take a well-known story, which has been re-invented many times over, and attempt to re-invent it again? Masque is based on The Phantom of The Opera, the French novel by Gaston Leroux, published in 1911. Since then it has been re-told in various films and novels, and on stage. I wouldn’t have considered reading this book, but I attended the regular ‘First Thursday’ event run by Seren Books, and heard Bethany Pope reading from it. I was entranced, hearing the story from the point of view of each character in turn, and wondering whether it would be the same as the original. These words are printed on the front of the book: ‘This is not the story you think you know…’   

The Original Novel by Gaston Leroux

The original novel is a detective story, told as if it were a true story, complete with ‘evidence’ in the form of extracts from accounts, memoirs and police reports. Its beginning is not exceptional, but once it gets going, there is a certain thrill (the kind you get from reading an Agatha Christie story) and a desire to know what happens next, with intricate detail.

The characters are fairly straightforward. Raoul is a young, rich nobleman, who falls in love with a beautiful woman. Christine is a poor young woman with a talent for singing. But she is portrayed as silly, gullible, confused and indecisive; gradually beginning to realise that the ‘angel of music’ whom she loves, is actually a real, “horrible” man. Erik (the ghost) is, in turn, portrayed as an ugly, disfigured illusionist, who enjoys torturing and murdering people, and sleeps in a coffin.

A Re-telling

Masque, on the other hand, begins with the voice of an older Christine Daaé, recalling her youth, looking back on her career as an opera singer of great repute. It then continues, moving back in time, with the childhood story of Erik, the deformed boy whose unusual education eventually leads him to become an architect, to be captured and forced to live in a cage as part of a circus, and finally to become the ‘Opera Ghost’, haunted by memories of his incarceration, afraid to let himself be seen, but longing for love.

As a reader we sympathise with this man whose own mother couldn’t bear to look at him, and yet he does seem to murder people on a regular basis. There is never any doubt that Christine knows this is a real man, despite her visionary view of him as the ‘angel of music’. The third voice comes from Raoul, the young man who desires Christine for himself.

As you read further, you begin to realise that Raoul’s love for Christine is possessive, obsessive and unrequited. She is placed in an awkward situation. She desires nothing else but to sing on stage, and yet she cannot afford to anger the man whose brother owns the opera house. Marriage would mean an end to her career, and Erik, the opera ghost, agrees to help her out.

Another Dimension to the Tale

This re-telling brings another dimension to the original tale. In one sense, it is about overcoming fear, showing yourself to the world and no longer hiding behind a mask. But it is also about following your dreams, not being afraid to stand out. And on another level still, it examines the cruel treatment of someone with a disability (with more details of this disfigurement than in the original), and the vulnerability of women in nineteenth century France.

The original novel ends with Christine and Raoul disappearing off to some foreign shore, to live together happily, whilst Erik, the Opera Ghost, dies alone and unloved. Bethany W Pope’s re-imagining of the tale ends in a far more exciting and satisfying way for a modern audience.

Two Excellent Novels

She has succeeded in creating a more intimate story, giving both Christine and Erik an opportunity to tell their side of the tale. But that’s not to say there’s anything wrong with the original novel. Leroux wrote a thrilling, believable read, and I would recommend both versions. They are each a product of their time.

Review by Carly Holmes, Wales Arts Review

Thursday, August 4, 2016

Bethany W Pope’s novel, Masque, carries the intriguing strap line: ‘This is not the story you think you know…’. I would hazard a guess that most of us are familiar with the plot of Gaston Leroux’s The Phantom of the Opera: the beautiful young opera singer Christine is in love with the handsome and wealthy Raoul, while the monstrous, murderous Phantom, her singing master and platonic father figure, does his best to thwart that love and keep her for himself. He is her dark side, and Raoul her light. Neatly, but unsatisfyingly, he finally concludes that he is not worthy of her love and frees her. He dies, and she (one assumes) lives happily ever after.

From the first page, Pope begins her inversion of the original. Here, Christine is a mature woman with greying hair and decades of regret behind her. Though she lives a safe and comfortable life, a prima donna who commands respect, she experiences the world around her through an internal filter of perceived threat and darkness. The girl who brings her gifts is a ‘ballerina rat’ who she imagines feeding on her blood if given the chance. Her own faded reflection in the warped mirror shows a face that ‘might belong to a skull, scraped to bone’. Yearning and loss invade Christine’s present and ready the reader for her version of the past.

The story moves swiftly between the three main characters: Christine, Erik (the Phantom), and Raoul. Each are given a handful of pages at a time, to recount their histories and detail their version of the unfolding drama, before passing the narrative onto the next character to carry the story forward. Each voice is distinctive and isolated from the others. Raoul experiences his connection with Christine through the exclusive framework of his pompous ego and narrow-mindedness, wholly oblivious to the possibility that she may not feel as honoured and enamoured as he assumes she must. Erik trembles before the force of his own deformity and his seemingly unrequited love for Christine, while her attraction to him, as a man rather than a singing master, does not transcend her sections of the book and plant itself in his awareness until it is nearly too late for them both.

Raoul is a figure of contempt through the narrative, despised by Christine. His inability to treasure her talent, her art, renders him totally unsympathetic and unlikeable. His love for her, while deep, is that of a spoiled child with a precious toy; she serves no role in his life and heart other than as a prized possession.

I remember the shape of her warm mouth as she spoke, twisting the sea-water out of the silk. I remember that her voice was silver. It did not matter what she said. To me, it was an invitation. I had earned her.

Raoul, with his utter lack of imagination or self-reflection, represents the safety of compromise and convention. He is in sharp contrast to Erik, who represents art itself and the risks and challenges a life devoted to art entail. Nothing, for Erik, should stand in the way of the act of creating. Even human life must be sacrificed if necessary, and without qualm.

Christine is no passive heroine waiting for love and male superiority to decide her fate. Single-minded and ruthless in her drive to place her art above all else, she is close to being an anti-heroine; deceiving her fiancé without a second’s thought or pity, allowing atrocities to take place around her without challenging them and with only brief concern. Not until the novel’s dramatic final stages, when she loses Erik and her art and allows herself to be caged into marriage with Raoul, is she humbled enough to fully appreciate the complexity of her urges: that there is as much to repulse as there is to attract, in both the life she chose and the life she didn’t.

It has got to the point that I feel like I am playing a parody of myself as I once was: the passionate, dark-haired post-adolescent who wanted nothing out of life but the freedom to sing. Well I finally have it. It comes at a cost.

The language and imagery through Masque is both sumptuous and unsettling. Masks appear again and again, in many forms. The reader is constantly reminded of a darker reality beneath the facade. The opera house is ‘built like a skull beneath the skin, ugly bones beneath some beautiful flesh’; Raoul worries that Christine is ‘brass overlaid with gold’; and the plush silken walls in Carlotta’s dressing room have been set with arsenic to render them a brilliant yellow.

Erik’s own mask hides a truly grotesque face, and Christine’s revulsion to his deformity is instinctive and visceral. Pope is unflinching in her descriptions of Erik; he is no frog to be kissed into handsome-prince-hood. If she is to truly love him then Christine must overcome her horror, and learn to embrace him as her lover. By the end of the novel, re-united with him once more, she attempts to do just that.

‘Teach me again, Erik. You taught me to sing, now teach me to look. I am a fast student. I am ready to work.’

With Masque‘s ending, Pope over-turns the moral lessons of Leroux’s original, where ugliness lives and dies in the darkness below ground and only beauty is permitted the light of day; she over-lays her own moral to this story: the transformation must be internal, for happiness to be achieved. Still hideous, still monstrous, the Phantom is physically unchanged but now accepting of his looks. His mask is set aside. Christine is the one who must undergo transformation and arrive at total acceptance in order to be complete.

The poignancy of this finale perfectly ends a novel richly layered with both gothic appeal and intellectual depth. In Masque Pope has initiated an important dialogue about the value of art to the human soul, and the psychological masks we wear as we pick our way through life.

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