The Invisible Woman (film)

Deep significant looks, heaving bosoms, and silent tortured expressions seemed to characterise this film. There was a lot of walking with determined strides across gloomy sand dunes and the lawns at Gads Hill. There were the dark claustrophobic Victorian rooms crowded with people admiring the great writer, heavy and airless with fawning and grovelling.

I have mixed feelings about this film: on the one hand I enjoyed the Dickens references to Great Expectations  and flashes of the writer’s life which I already knew about, but on the other I found what was omitted from the story rather annoying. Ralph Fiennes valiantly tried to depict Dickens as a romantic but flawed genius but we know that he (Dickens, not Fiennes!) was relentlessly cruel to his wife and children, and that his dalliance with Nellie (Ellen Ternan) came at a great price for his family, however much he and his adoring friends and public endeavoured to cover up his affair and uphold the fantasy that he was the archetypal upstanding paragon of Victorian values.

Granted it was focusing on Nellie’s story, the teenage actress who captured the attention of the great writer who was many years her senior, but the reality of it all is that his vanity fed on the destruction of those around him and this did not really come through the film.

Other odd gaps were for example when at one moment Nellie was furiously claiming that she would not be his mistress and horrified that he should suggest such immorality (“how could he offend her virtue so?”) and the next she was living with him, trotting off with him to France, and bearing his child. The only thing in the film that seemed to prompt this was Dickens’s suggestion that their relationship was akin to Pip and Estelle!

Another big gap in the film was the leap from Dickens setting Nellie up in her own house and Nellie being married to a headmaster and with a child. And another disparity: in Victorian times jobbing actresses were regarded as little more than “women of the night” while in the film we are led to believe that Nellie and her family are poor but respectable.

I do think that perhaps the film suffered from the cutting room …?

The Book Thief: Markus Zusak

I’ve just finished reading The Book Thief and I know already that it will be one that haunts me for a long time. It is brilliant, in its style, its structure and its message. I love unusual narratives, with creative startling language, and this one is crafted so beautifully that it makes the reader gasp. The last words from Death say it all (and I don’t think that I give anything away by quoting them): “I am haunted by humans”. It’s what pervades the whole novel.

It is set in 1939 in Nazi Germany, and it is, uniquely, I think, narrated by Death himself. The characters are clearly formed and the reader gets to know each one. The main protagonist is Liesel, the foster girl who comes to live with Rosa and Hans Hubermann in their house in a poor area outside Munich. Hans (“Papa”) teaches her to read and write, and this forms the beauty of the story. She forms a firm friendship with Rudy, the boy next door, and together they eke out their meagre existence by stealing food and colour their survival with words. The family harbours in their basement, Max, a Jew for whom Hans has reason to be grateful, and he develops Liesel’s fascination with words. She begins to steal books and shares them with Max and with her neighbours in the shelter during the devastating bombing raids. Liesel and Rudy’s growing understanding of the world around them is shown carefully and delicately through the eyes of Death.

There is so much to this book that a brief review can barely suggest the experience of reading it. The beauty (and sometimes oddness)of the language had something of the poet Dylan Thomas about it. I have read many novels about this period of history and thought that there was nothing new to say, but this one is most unusual and captivating. It certainly left me with much to think about. I can’t wait to see the film; I do hope that it serves the book well.

Twelve Years a Slave: Solomon Northup

A detailed and absorbing account of Solomon Northup’s life story, having been born a free man in Saratoga, New York, then kidnapped, drugged  and sold into slavery by unscrupulous traders. It is not a novel, but a true account and as such it lacks fluid structure and contains information and data which would not have been woven into a novel, especially in terms of the legal documents at the end of the story. However, it appears to be an account written by David Wilson in 1853 according to Solomon’s recollections, Solomon having only escaped in that same year. I have a couple of reservations, knowing this and being by nature cynical. The words are clearly not Solomon’s own, and at times are effuse and over-done, so how much of the content was exaggerated or fanciful? It would have been more interesting to have the story in Solomon’s own words: he was apparently, after all, a literate man, or so Wilson would have us believe. I am also puzzled about level of minute detail: did Solomon really recall all this, with many descriptions going back 12 years? And despite being in a very stressful situation? He was, after all, not allowed pen and paper to record anything. Or is much of it embellished by Wilson? There are several places in the narrative where I felt that it did not “ring true” to me and if, in fact, these were Wilson’s own additions, does this not detract from the authenticity and appeal? Were there really so many “kind” slave-owners and so much generosity in holidays and slave dances? It would be interesting to know. But yet the story is fascinating and an eye-opener into the shameful history of American slavery. It was also particularly interesting to me as I had read Tracey Chevalier’s The Last Runaway not long ago which deals with the same period of history, as a novel and which I really enjoyed. Enjoy is not the appropriate word for Twelve Years a Slave, harrowing as it is in many parts, but it is well worth a read.

We went to see the film of the book (Steve McQueen) yesterday and – well, what a powerful film! At the end there was not a sound in the auditorium, everyone was stunned to silence. Quite a recommendation in itself. It is certainly worthy of the accolades and awards it has so far won. Oscar quality – I hope!