A Sideways Ride Through Jekyll and Hyde
Happily, it turns out that A Method Actor’s Guide to Jekyll and Hyde is a great book, and no mere retread of the classic original either. “I thought that would be a bit cheeky to do,” says the author. “Instead I wrote something that alludes to the original Jekyll and Hyde story, but it’s not a retelling. If you have a knowledge of the original Jekyll and Hyde it might help you with appreciating some of the subtleties in the novel – but you don’t need to know it.” To give a flavour of what this means, in this novel an actor called Robert Lewis, who’s appearing in a stage version of The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, is involved in a terrible bike crash, (MacNeil too is a keen cyclist, having cycled the length of the Danube last year) and finds himself in hospital – and attended by a nurse Stevenson too – after which things get stranger still. Later there are further developments that not only change Lewis’s life completely, but also the way the story is told.
Remember though, that Stevenson’s book was told in an unusual manner too, with different narrators gradually revealing what was going on. “I think I partly took my cue in structuring this novel from Stevenson,” MacNeil says, “but I also think it’s fair to say that I write novels with unconventional structures anyhow, because I don’t really follow the tradition of structuring novels the way that ‘How to Write a Novel Books’ tell you to.” He’s right – his novel is refreshingly different structurally, whilst still exploring familiar themes, of identity, and of place. MacNeil has brought this story back to Scotland, if it ever left. “I think the London of Stevenson’s Jekyll and Hyde is…. I agree with GK Chesterton, it’s a very Caledonian London, and to me it’s quite like Edinburgh,” he says, and it’s very true of Stevenson’s novella. And more true of MacNeil’s novel, which is set directly in Edinburgh. “And Edinburgh does have that feeling of being a divided city, “ MacNeil says ”which I love. It’s got these grand avenues and little dark secretive seedy closes. It’s got the old town and the new town. It seems perfect for this novel.”
Oddly enough for a story dealing with duality, Stevenson’s Jekyll and Hyde had a double, an earlier draft that Stevenson’s wife didn’t like. “I love that” says MacNeil “He threw it on the fire, and who knows, that’s one of the world’s great lost books. Or was it great – maybe his wife was a good critic?” he laughs. This work has some parallels with reality – MacNeil mentions “the guy whose vehicle ate my bike” in the dedications page – but thankfully not too many, as he escaped harm – narrowly. Happily, he’s enjoying his work now, brushing off any notion of second novel syndrome, and telling me, “Although it’s my second novel, it’s my fourth or fifth book, so I didn’t have any great anxieties over that. In fact if anything, I’m bursting with ideas. I’ve got a new play commissioned that I’m desperate to do, I’ve got two ideas for new novels, and I’ve got a non-fiction book about my Danube cycle, so I’m not shy of ideas. And the album’s coming out and there’s other little projects, and I was doing short stories as well.”
But for now there’s this novel, an excellent story about an unusual man, who creates characters but who turns out not to know his own reality quite as well as he should – with his crash, and the play within the novel all contributing to this. It’s a dark novel in places, but there’s no small measure of hope in the book too. Sadly, I can’t really say more than this without spoiling what is an excellent read. Imagine reading the original Jekyll and Hyde without knowing about the dualities involved in the story, having not had the plot spoiled by innumerable sources from popular culture – and you can get a flavour of that by reading this intricate, powerful novel. A novel whose author says that “I didn’t want to look at mere duality, I also wanted to look at multiplicity.” And then slyly adds “But I wanted to resolve that in unity”.
Really, you’ll have to read the book to find out what it all means.