2.02.2014

Hyde, by Daniel Levine

I received a free copy of this book to review from NetGalley, on behalf of the publisher. It will be released 18 March 2014.

Hyde
In November 2012, inspired by the BBC retelling, I read The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. I've once more been given a chance to see a modern retelling of the unsettling novella by Robert Louis Stevenson. Both the BBC's Jekyll and Daniel Levine's Hyde, seek a more scientific (though outlandish explanation) for Dr. Jekyll's condition than Stevenson's certain salt compound. In Jekyll, the dual personality was the result of a lingering genetic condition caused by Dr. Jekyll's chemical tinkering. In Hyde, the explanation is psychological.

Hyde is a tale of madness. There are no dialog markers. Time and memory are fluid. Personality itself is not fixed. But, after 128, we finally get to hear Hyde's side of the story. The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is narrated entirely by the doctor and only gives us glimpses of what Hyde did when he was in possession of their shared body. That story is a tale of a good man overcome by his evil side. When we finally get to hear from Hyde, everything becomes much more ambiguous. By the time the book opens, Hyde has been hiding in Dr. Jekyll's office and surgery for some months, trying to keep up the pretense that the doctor is still around. He knows it will not end well, as he has been witnesses beating a member of Parliament to death. Dr. Jekyll whipped up a dose of cyanide for his other half, so Hyde takes some pride in the fact that he can end his story on his own terms.

From that doomed beginning, Hyde takes us back to his first memories. After working with a patient in France who had three distinct personalities, Dr. Jekyll concocted a drug that could force the unfortunate Emile Verlaine to shift to any of his other two selves. Jekyll, a curiously precocious psychiatrist for the 1880s, worked out that Emile's alternate personalities were the result of terrible abuse the man had suffered as a child. This abuse curiously mirrors the abuse that Jekyll himself suffered at the hands of his demented father. Verlaine ends up a suicide and Jekyll returns to England with his formula. It becomes clear that Hyde is not new. He's been lurking in Jekyll's psyche all his life.

Hyde revels his life in memories. He uses Jekyll's money to by the crumbling house behind the doctor's own home. He finds someone to love: an underage prostitute named Jeannie. The separate lives of Hyde and Jekyll might have worked were it not for Hyde's instability. He starts to lose time. Hyde finds mysterious and malevolent notes stuff through his letterbox. Then Hyde is implicated in a ring of underage prostitution. When Jekyll's friend the MP, Carew, offers to keep the doctor out of the investigation because of his association with Hyde, Jekyll uses Hyde to murder the man. Then the house of cards all comes tumbling down.

In this retelling, neither Jekyll nor Hyde is purely good or bad—something the author notes at the end of the book. In the author's note, Levine writes that the original story was somewhat forced into the Good versus Evil allegory. When I read Stevenson's novella, I thought that the real monster was always inside Jekyll and that the formula just let him shut down his superego for a while. In Levine's version, Hyde is not pure id or subconscious. I'm more satisfied by this version of events that Stevenson's cryptic story intellectually. It makes more sense to me this way.  But, be warned. Hyde is hard to take at certain points. The story is no longer filtered by Dr. Jekyll's Victorian sensibilities and need to appear blameless. The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde was a dark tale. Hyde is even darker. The level of abuse that could case a personality to shatter is always horrific. You learn of some of that in Hyde, though Hyde continues to protect Jekyll and shelters the reader by not being explicit.

Daniel Levine does an incredible job with his retelling. Other attempts to give famous literary figures a back story, as Ronald Frame tried to do in Havisham, tend to fail because there are too many limits to what they can do. Levine took the events mentioned in Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and ran with them. Stevenson left the alter ego's comings and goings and doings ambiguous enough that Levine has more than enough room to play around in.

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