On the windswept front of Morecambe Bay, Cy Parks spends his childhood years first in a guest house for consumptives run by his mother and then as apprentice to alcoholic tattoo-artist Eliot Riley. Thirsty for new experiences, he departs for America and finds himself in the riotous world of the Coney Island board walk, where he sets up his own business as ‘The Electric Michelangelo’. In this carnival environment of roller-coasters and freak-shows, Cy becomes enamoured with Grace, a mysterious immigrant and circus performer who commissions him to cover her entire body in tattooed eyes.
This morning I finished The Electric Michelangelo by Sarah Hall. It’s a truly amazing and beautiful book. A masterpiece like the ones Cy etched on hundreds of bodies. I don’t really know where to begin. It took me four or five weeks to read this book, which is really long for me. G bought it for me in Foyle Books second-hand as he thought it seemed like my kind of book. It IS a slow burner, but the prose is so artistic and the story slow and descriptive in places, it seems a lot of people found this. It isn’t a complaint. I’m glad I took all the lunchtimes and falling asleep in the lamplight to get to know Cy Parks and his story.
I loved the settings, Morecambe Bay and Coney Island. I briefly visited Morecambe with my aunties when they lived in Lancaster for the year.
I loved the fact that it was about love, loss and the art of tattooing. There are wonderful paragraphs that describe the process and emotional stamp of tattoos. It does make you appreciate and perhaps want to get ‘scraped’ yourself.
Cy Parks’ mother Reeda ran a hotel for consumptives from 1907 in Morecambe. One of the first scenes is Cy holding basins for the sick to cough and hack bloody messes into. It’s pretty gruesome, along with the midnight scenes and painful, clotted clues that the hotel also housed secret abortions had me swaying light headedly in the break room.
Reeda Parks is a wonderful character and I have pinned on of her quotes up on my wall.
Eliot Riley is the dangerous, alcoholic womanizing Bolshevik that Cy fatefully becomes apprenticed to. The ten years he spends being taught and abused by Riley shape his life forever.
When Riley horrendously dies, Cy goes to America and ends up with a stall on the board walk at Coney Island and a new name, The Electric Michelangelo. He is nestled among the freak shows and the hot dogs, and things often take a magical and surreal turn.
I was fascinated by the character of Claudia, a huge muscled woman married to the equally big Viking Arturus ‘Turo.’
‘Claudia had a secret…She was obsessed with the baby incubator exhibit at Coney. She could not keep away from it….Cy had passed the place often but had never been inside the show. He disapproved of it. It was one of the more extreme and less tasteful enterprises at the Island, a macabre maternity ward. Beyond the unseemliness of the place it also disturbed him on a sinister, childhood level, for it brought to mind the strange work of his mother, all the children of her unmaking, all the undone babies of Morecambe Bay…
Claudia had miscarried six times in her life and Arturas did not blame her, even as she was confounded by her own body and wept for not giving their love issue. He fixed their dead children’s names to her mighty body in black ink, like eulogies on a mausolem.’
So much pain and struggling to understand in this book. This just about broke my heart.
Cy’s main and late coming love interest is a fascinating woman, a circus performer called Grace who lives in his building. He watched the light from her window and her silhouette on the wall opposite like a cinema screen. She is mixed race of unknown origin and has a horse called Maximus. She is a chess champion and asks him to tattoo her whole body with the same green, unblinking eye. The tattooing is a strange and intimate affair where Cy has to struggle to keep his feelings under control. Grace is so intelligent, scary sometimes and unreachable. Tragedy and loss happen in the most devastating way, all tied into skin and seeing and love…
Tattoos and the art of tattooing lends itself wonderfully to beautiful writing. It’s something I would like to read more about.
There were instances when Cy’s needle unwittingly dived down into a soul and struck upon meaning, then confidential matter came up, unstemmable as arterial blood or gushing oil, and customers confessed the meaning behind the art.
There are very wise points regarding feminism, and women and sex. It’s the kind of book that you really want to discuss with someone, like the ending. What it means… I really think I’m going on too much, but I really recommend this book. If you’ve read it, tell me what you think!
The Guardian’s review from March 2004 says it so much more eloquently and clearly.
A huge wonderful achievement from Sarah Hall, and I’m looking forward to hunting out her other work and hopefully finding her on twitter.