I hesitated to put up this review of Julia by Sandra Newman since I recently indicated that my reviewing time, limited due to illness, would be devoted to books that really inspired me in some way. Well, this one didn’t, but it was the last commitment I made to NetGalley, so I wrote a brief review for them, which also appeared on GoodReads. I decided to publish it here because it’s related to a classic book that had a big influence on my thinking about power. So here it is.
Julia by Sandra Newman is a re-visioning of the Winston Smith’s love interest in 1984 and was approved by the estate of George Orwell. There have been many recent efforts to give voice to voiceless female characters from classic fiction and epic poetry. My favorite, by far, is Ursula K. Le Guin’s Lavinia, Aeneas’s bride from the Aeneid, a character who is completely silent in Virgil’s poetry, but who is richly re-imagined as a strong, interesting character by Le Guin. By that standard, Julia falls short. There is a lot that Newman does very well, but there is also a lot that is disappointing.
Newman re-creates the world of 1984 and gives Julia a convincing place within it. She is a mechanic in Fiction and keeps the machines running that produce the safe novels that reflect the latest in Big Brother’s thought and NewSpeak. People are constantly disappearing for various thoughtcrimes, “vaporized” in the terms of this world, and Julia manages to get what enjoyment there is to be had from her dorm life, her repair work, the ritualized Hate sessions and other communally enforced behaviors. But mostly she survives on the strength of her internal life and dreams, often of the sex that is considered a serious crime, and she manages a secret sex life that helps her feel alive. She is told she is a Hero of the Party because she betrayed her mother to the authorities as a teenager, but we also learn her backstory and the desperate circumstances that forced her to do this.
Compared to the thinly drawn Julia of 1984, this Julia is a well-rounded character in a world that comes to life, just as much in the description of prole life as in the more privileged and perilous existence of those working for the Party. But she is drawn more deeply into Party ranks by O’Brien, a key figure in the original 1984 who there seduces Smith into thinking he is a secret member of the democratic opposition. This Julia seems swayed by the apparent promise of gaining access to the rich life of the Party elite. What they want of her is for her to use her sexual power to become a whore of the Party. And they are just that blunt about it, after carefully leading up to their plan by playing on her hopes and loyalties. Julia enters this life willingly because she has already been meeting men secretly to have sex. It’s been an important part of her life, one area of imagined freedom and enjoyment in an otherwise regimented existence. But now she is to seduce men identified by the Party, and she becomes an effective agent at getting these men to betray themselves for eventual elimination.
That is the extent of her agency and empowerment, and there is little surprise when she finds she’s only been a tool of the Party all along, an effective spy and collaborator despite her imagined future of life in the more privileged world. The men in power toss her aside as if she were nothing. There is an interesting twist in the story that goes beyond the events of 1984 and promises real liberation, but even that has a predictable crushing end to her hopes. What enables her to survive everything is her ability to detach from what is happening around her and from what she is forced to do and say. But that seems a poor substitute for a real life and made me wonder what the point of writing this novel really was.
The original 1984 was a study in the uses of raw power to turn people into slaves capable of denouncing themselves and believing that their very thoughts made them criminals and worthy of execution. It was told through the eyes of a man who was manipulated by men in power. Julia shows that women could be manipulated even more deeply through their bodies as well as minds, but that isn’t news. It’s what we see around us every day.
My thanks to Mariner Books and NetGalley for an advance review copy of Julia by Sandra Newman for this review, based solely on my own opinions.