Book Review – Masque by Bethany W Pope

MasqueWhy 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…’   

Original front cover of the 1st French edition

Original front cover of the 1st French edition

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.

You can read an interview with Bethany Pope about her inspiration for the book, on the Wales Arts Review website.

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