In the vaulted Gothic towers of Notre-Dame lives Quasimodo, the hunchbacked bellringer. Mocked and shunned for his appearance, he is pitied only by Esmerelda, a beautiful gypsy dancer to whom he becomes completely devoted. Esmerelda, however, has also attracted the attention of the sinister archdeacon Claude Frollo, and when she rejects his lecherous approaches, Frollo hatches a plot to destroy her that only Quasimodo can prevent. Victor Hugo’s sensational, evocative novel brings life to the medieval Paris he loved, and mourns its passing in one of the greatest historical romances of the nineteenth century.
Like Frankenstein and Dracula, this is a book that has entered the public consciousness and doesn’t need to be read to know the story…Disney has a lot to answer for with its rendering of Hugo’s classic.
Set in Paris in 1482, the journey Hugo takes us along is one of powerful raw emotions: love, hate, prejudice, revenge, lust, redemption and vanity and that is just to scratch the surface. The powerful nature of the many conflicting aspects of human nature allow the reader to recognise the best and worst of humanity, which makes for a riveting read, it really is drama at its purest.
There is so much content crammed into the story, it’s not a pure narrative of events but sprawling with plenty of lavish and lengthy digressions of rich architectural detail, which will either infuriate or captivate. If great masses of prose describing the details of buildings put you off then skipping them to keep the story flowing is still extremely worthwhile but for me the extra details just build up the rich world that the characters live in. It adds to the world, it paints a picture of the time and place and makes for a more rounded reading experience.
Hugo likes to spin many ideas, although this is a grim book focussing plentifully on the seedy underworld of Paris, Tragedy with a capital T, is unequivocally the main player, he offsets this with some wonderful comedy sequences which helps one cope with the unrelenting cruelty that occupies the main players’ life. So don’t expect many happy endings but prepare for a tale in which the characters are human, they have their faults and endure as best they can. Whether innocent or corrupt, the characters have so much more to them than meets the eye with metaphors and themes swirling throughout the book and adding even more depth for those wishing to dwell on human nature.
After a slow opening in which I felt I had to grind out the first few chapters, the wealth of writing talent is clear for all to see with the complex tapestry of intertwining tales. The structure is as complex as the author’s beloved cathedral. The ending is a perfectly counterweighted with a fantastic finale that flies along and is as thrilling as it is satisfying.
Whilst this truly does deserve the title of a Classic, it isn’t without its faults. A slow start and timely digressions aside, there are a few things that took me out of the world created. Most notably would be one of the ‘coincidences’ that I felt was just a little bit to much of a reach and some of the mysteries were revealed a bit to soon…I love a bit of tension and would have been happy to remain in the dark for a little while longer. On reflection these mysteries are not to difficult for the reader to work out but it would have been so much more effective to reveal towards the ending when so much was coming to a head.
Minor quibbles aside, it’s a great read, if slightly to ponderous in places. It’s still well worth your time and effort to read.