Sydney Morning Herald: Fiction Pick of the Week


Pick of the week


Kevin MacNeil

Polygon, 212pp, $29.95

Many people who have never read Robert Louis Stevenson’s classic 1886 novella Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde are familiar with the story, or at least with the idea, of the man whose personality was split into good and bad, each manifested by way of a potion that would turn him from the one into the other. But Scottish writer Kevin MacNeil is intimately familiar with Stevenson’s story and his novel is a complex, intriguing and witty play on the original.

The main character and narrator is a young actor called Robert Lewis, who has unexpectedly landed the dual part of Jekyll and Hyde in an adaptation for the stage. But his preparations are cut short when, while riding his bike to rehearsal, he is sideswiped by a car and sufficiently badly hurt to end up in hospital, his brain affected by the accident. In his eagerness to get back into rehearsal he leaves hospital before he should, only to find a new addition to the cast called Edward Woolfe, described as “the new James McAvoy”, is poised to take over from him not only in the play but also in the affections of their fellow actor, Juliette.

What follows is a blackly funny story of the kind you’d expect when a novelist takes on the theme of fragmented identity, acting, masks, deception and illusion. Robert, who spent his childhood being bounced from one foster home to the next and who lied his way into drama school, is both familiar with fragmented identity and careless with the truth even before he gets knocked off his bike. And when his Juliette takes over as narrator, we get a very different story. MacNeil is an experienced and gifted novelist, who uses his home city of Edinburgh for a setting as expertly as Ian Rankin or Alexander McCall Smith, though quite differently from both.