In Sandra Newman’s JULIA, readers re-experience the bleak world of George Orwell’s 1984 from the character Julia’s point of view. Newman chose some pretty big shoes to fill, which had me wary whether this novel was going to work out for me. The second half gets us to the right place, though, and I overall enjoyed it.
There’s a whole sub-genre dedicated to reinterpreting classic stories from a female perspective, which usually isn’t my bag but that’s obviously fine. (A notable exception for me would be HOMER’S DAUGHTER by Robert Graves, an excellent interpretation of THE ODYSSEY.) What drew me to JULIA was how absolutely powerful 1984 has always been for me. It’s a novel I re-read every five years or so. Apparently, the author was invited by the Orwell estate to write a female-oriented version of the story.
George Orwell was a socialist who fought fascism as a volunteer in the Spanish Civil War. He opposed totalitarianism in all its forms, from the Soviet Union to Nazi Germany, both of which borrowed the language of socialism to appeal to the common man (socialism was very popular at the time and carried moral force) but became something else entirely. In true socialism, workers own all businesses and run them and society democratically. In Nazi Germany, big business went on as before only directed by the regime, and in the USSR, the government itself became big business, a form of state capitalism. Orwell’s vision of totalitarianism in 1984 is based on these regimes, and it’s a horrifying, startling, and brilliantly conceived vision of dystopia.
Newman had her work cut out for her not only in adding to a brilliant novel of ideas but in bringing Julia to life, as in the original story she does little and is in some respects a plot device. The result for me was mixed. Julia trivializes life in Oceania and Winston’s ideas to the point of undermining 1984, and the Party is simply not as terrifying, more an incompetent 1960s communist bloc government than a vast omnipotent machine designed to perpetuate its hold on power forever. O’Brien, a perfect villain, starts off great but also ends up trivialized to an extent for stealing ideas from a female colleague.
Even Julia herself is to an extent trivialized. In 1984, she has sex, steals, and commits other crimes as her way of fighting the system. As a foil to Winston, her idea of rebelling in 1984 is to stubbornly live as best one can, to which she uses her body, while Winston’s idea of rebellion is more of the mind, living with fear and knowledge he will be killed such that he considers himself and anyone else in the Party to be already dead. She’s kind of a bad-ass in her way in 1984; she gets the truth in a way Winston has a hard time grasping. In JULIA, the titular character seeks sex as a balm or from some other psychological need, and it becomes an end in itself rather than a means of saying FU to the Party. Her generalizations about men and individuals in her life are more cutting than those she has about the Party that controls and threatens every aspect of her existence. I think Newman and I had a different take on the character, or perhaps my perception of Julia was on the surface and I didn’t explore what it would be like to be her day to day–either way, I had to get used to it as a reader.
All of this made me falter, but it didn’t turn me off outright. The second half of the novel gets far darker, as Julia’s fantasies are wrecked and she sees the Party for what it is and herself in a new way, and I thought: There it is! It’s here the worlds of JULIA and 1984 became one for me, and I was turning pages. Newman’s a skilled writer, and when it all came together, I started to really immerse in the story. She also started to add her own ideas to the original in a way that complemented and fleshed out Orwell’s themes. I was fairly gripped as the story reached the climax, and here Newman did something particularly controversial, which was put her own interpretation on Big Brother, the Party, and whether an alternative would be much better or be prone to make the same mistakes. It’s possibly the most striking departure from the far bleaker ending of 1984, but I didn’t mind it, I liked it for what it was, and I respected the author’s take.
Overall, JULIA is a good read, but appreciating it requires reading 1984, which in turn sets up certain expectations. One could argue JULIA stands on its own, and that’s fine, but again, as 1984 is such an important novel, it was hard for me to separate the two. Anyway, I’d recommend it if you love 1984, though I’d caution to keep your expectations in check and take the novel as it’s presented.