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Poor Things summary

Alasdair Gray

A Novel

4.2 (24 ratings)
24 mins
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    Poor Things
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    The strange memoir of Archibald McCandless

    Alisdair Gray’s novel is set in his native Glasgow, a Scottish city haunted by late nineteenth-century ghosts – the remnants of the lost world of Victorian Britain. 

    The Victorian age was one of industry and empire. Glasgow embodied its spirit like few other cities. It was home to the scientists who conceived the steam engine and the philosophers who invented capitalism. It was Glasgow, too, that built the empire’s ships and trained its economists and engineers.

    The events recounted in Poor Things begin in 1878, but the novel opens a century later. By then, the British Empire was a thing of the past, and Glasgow’s iconic shipyards were being dismantled. Its Victorian architecture, meanwhile, was being bulldozed to make way for motorways and malls.

    The first character we meet is Michael Donnelly, a local historian who sees the city’s redevelopment as an act of vandalism. Donnelly saves what he can, rescuing portraits of long-forgotten grandees from their soon-to-be-demolished townhouses. One day, he finds old file boxes in the bins outside a defunct legal firm’s offices. Recognizing the name of the first woman doctor to graduate from Glasgow University, he takes one of the boxes home. 

    On it is a crossed-out inscription written in faded ink:

    Estate of Victoria McCandless M.D. For the attention of her eldest grandchild or surviving descendant after August 1975. Not to be opened earlier. 

    Below, someone has scrawled “No surviving descendants.” Inside, there’s a small book entitled Episodes from the Early Life of a Scottish Public Health Officer, self-published in 1909 by a man called Archibald McCandless. There’s also a letter from his wife, Victoria McCandless, disputing the account contained in her late husband’s “aberrant” book. 

    Donnelly reads both documents – and then forgets them. In 1990, he rediscovers them and gives them to a friend, the Glaswegian writer Alisdair Gray. The novelist agrees that this grotesque Victorian melodrama is a “lost masterpiece,” but he disputes Donnelly’s claim that it’s pure fiction. Gray has written enough fiction, he says, to recognize history when he sees it. Donnelly counters that he’s written enough history to recognize fiction when he sees it. Agreeing to disagree, the two men republish the book in a critical edition containing Victoria’s letter and decide to let readers make up their own minds.

    ANALYSIS

    The past, it’s said, is a foreign country – as alien to us as any nation whose language and customs we don’t understand. For Gray, it’s weirder than that. For him, the past isn’t a place at all, not even metaphorically: it only exists in the stories we tell about it. 

    Donnelly, by contrast, seeks an objective account of “how things really were” in the objects he saves from history’s rubbish. But what do such mute objects really tell us? The past only speaks in written sources. But, as Donnelly discovers, such sources are too talkative: they quarrel and contradict each other; they tell too many stories. 

    Critics regard Poor Things as a postmodern novel because Gray playfully develops an idea associated with that school of thought – that “reality” isn’t something “out there” in the world waiting to be found, but something we make. We construct fictions, in short, and agree – or fail to agree – that they constitute so-called reality. In Poor Things, such agreement is elusive. For the fictionalized author Alisdair Gray, the narrative presented in McCandless’s book is a “complete tissue of facts.” Donnelly, on the other hand, says it’s a “blackly humorous fiction.” McCandless asserts the truth of his narrative; his wife calls it an “infernal parody of my life story.” Ultimately, it’s left to readers to decide what is real.

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    What is Poor Things about?

    Poor Things (1992) is an award-winning postmodern novel that takes readers on a whirlwind tour through the monstrous and gothic world of late-Victorian Glasgow. A Frankenstein-esque tale of a dubious scientific experiment, it playfully subverts genre conventions to provide a fresh perspective on the representation of women in literature.

    Poor Things Review

    Poor Things (1992) by Alasdair Gray is a book worth reading for its unique storyline and thought-provoking themes. Here's why this book stands out:

    • With its unconventional narrative structure and blend of genres, the book keeps readers engaged from start to finish, leaving them wanting more.
    • The characters in the story are complex and multi-dimensional, making their journeys captivating and relatable.
    • Exploring themes of identity, society, and morality, the book challenges readers to question their own beliefs and assumptions, sparking meaningful reflection.

    Who should read Poor Things?

    • Fans of satirical postmodern literature
    • History buffs who love all things Victorian 
    • Sci-fi enthusiasts interested in a modern take on Frankenstein

    About the Author

    Alasdair Gray (1934–2019) was a Scottish writer, essayist, poet, visual artist, and playwright. Gray studied mural work at the Glasgow School of Art. In 1981, he published Lanark, a novel widely regarded as a landmark in Scottish literature. His fiction blends influences ranging from George Orwell to Jorge Luis Borges and draws on postmodernist ideas. When he died in 2019, he was hailed as a “father figure” in the renaissance of Scottish art.

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    Poor Things FAQs 

    What is the main message of Poor Things?

    The main message of Poor Things is a tale of love, deceit, and the complexities of the human condition.

    How long does it take to read Poor Things?

    The reading time for Poor Things varies depending on the reader's speed. However, the Blinkist summary can be read in just 15 minutes.

    Is Poor Things a good book? Is it worth reading?

    Poor Things is an intriguing book well worth the read. Its unique narrative style and thought-provoking themes make it a rewarding literary experience.

    Who is the author of Poor Things?

    The author of Poor Things is Alasdair Gray.