Phantom by Susan Kay

A child is born… His  mother’s only gift is a mask. Precocious and gifted, he will live friendless and alone. taunted and abused, he will flee, only to find himself caged  again – as a freak in a Gypsy carnival. A brilliant outcast… the world is his home. Filled with  bitter rage, he will kill to escape, becoming a  stonemason’s apprentice in Rome… a dark magician at  the treacherous Persian court… and finally, the  genius behind the construction of the Paris Opera  House and the labyrinthine world below. Lacking one thing only: A woman’s love. Cloaked in secrets,  his power complete, he will see the exquisite  Christine and for the first time know what it means to  love. Obsessed, he will bring her into his eerie  subterranean world, driven to posses her heart and soul. (Synopsis source: http://www.amazon.com/Phantom-Susan-Kay/)

For fans of The Phantom of the Opera, Kay’s Phantom should, theoretically, be a compelling read. Both prequel and retelling, the novel follows Erik’s life as he steadily sinks into psychological instability and moral darkness, ending with the story that is so familiar to those who enjoyed Leroux’s Gothic classic. Yet Phantom is a messy and poorly executed novel, one which fails to make improvements upon its source work. Like countless others who have attempted to delve into Erik’s complicated psyche, Kay explains his steady decline from innocent child to remorseless killer with a series of traumatic incidents in which Erik is exposed to the brutality that people show to each other. Unfortunately, most of these incidents are related not by Erik himself, but by a scattered cast of bystanders and acquaintances, from his abusive mother to his kindly mentor to, finally, Christine by way of her diary. As a result, the majority of the novel finds the reader observing Erik from a distance, often through perspectives that are ill-informed or severely limited.

It is unclear what Kay’s intent in this is, other than to shield the reader from the perspective that they want most. Erik narrates at only two points in the story: when he is being held captive by gypsies as a young boy and, more than thirty years later, when he is hidden in the Paris Opera House. Phantom is a novel which is very much interested in the way that perspectives of others impact the way we see ourselves. But without giving the reader a firsthand glimpse at the way that Erik reacts to the prejudice and hatred that he encounters when he attempts to engage in normal human relationships, she fails to consistently give readers the most important perspective: that of Erik himself. In a work that strives so hard for psychological intimacy, this feels like a problem. Phantom could have been a fascinating book in which readers were forced to critique their own prejudiced perceptions, but Kay completely failed to do this. In the end, after all, Erik is proven to be exactly what we think he will be. By the time he can speak for himself, he is already transformed into the stereotype behind the mask.

As a result, I find Erik’s character no more sympathetic at the end of Phantom than I did at the end of The Phantom of the Opera, a work which was markedly more successful in creating stirring portraits of morally complicated characters. Though there were parts of Phantom that I found enjoyable, I was almost always distracted by the shifting first-person perspectives that told me everything but that which I really wanted to know. The last 100 or so pages of Phantom are by far the best because they finally put the reader in the place where they should be: behind the mask of the novel’s elusive main character.

Not recommended

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