There’s no plot, as such, with this one. It’s more Samantha Ellis‘ quest to determine which of her childhood literary heroines live up to their status when re-read years later. She talks us through some of her favourites and, with a retrospective view, dissects problematic aspects of the women we hail as heroines. After all, the heroines we idolise as children don’t often stay with us to adulthood because we outgrow them. Ellis discusses the influence of the authors and their tribulations upon their fictional characters, as well as relevant cultural discourse at the time of publication.
Things I like about the novel:
Writing style: succinct, comedic, poetic at times. It slightly felt like reading somebody’s PHD thesis, though it was accessible and never ‘lost’ me, despite my lack of familiarity with some of the texts. Overall, reading this book felt like being at a cafe with a cappuccino in-hand and sitting across from a fellow bookworm, losing hours of time over a good gab on our favourites.
Little snippets of Ellis’ cultural background sneak into the book. There’s stories of growing up in a Iraqi-Jewish household with conservative cultural beliefs and expectations. In between the discussion of literature, I really enjoyed Ellis’ account of how the books impacted her life decisions and perspectives, particularly her earlier relationships. I definitely relate to the romantic notion of seeking out fictional ideas of fictional men when it comes to relationships. I could blame authors for distorting my worldview of men, but at the end of the day, we all need a bit of escapism. Sometimes it’s it’s nice to fantasise about those mysteriously enigmatic and brooding men who swoop in at all the right times and say all the right things. However, I’ve learned that, in reality, chasing archetypes of the Byronic bad-boy and sensitive romantic aren’t worth it. Real people are so much messier and problematic than fictional figures. Part of me really likes that, actually.
Admittedly, I haven’t read all the titles featured, so some sections were a little lost on me in that I lost the impact I would inevitably have felt if I was more acquainted with the characters and narrative arcs. That being said, Ellis does a brilliant job of summarising the key elements of the novels so that you don’t feel completely in the dark. Also, her passion for literature absolutely shines from the outset till the end.
This book is a lovely ode to heroic wordsmiths who have provided the world with the light of these iconic protagonists. It says a lot that these heroines have lived on for hundreds of years, in some cases, through faithful readers and word-of-mouth. Ellis’ book is a firm reminder that we still turn to our creature comforts despite our busy lifestyles, re-reading classics like Wuthering Heights on the bus to work or tuning in for the latest remake of Emma. This is because, despite our differences, there are admirable and strong traits to be noted in these iconic literary heroines and they continue to inspire us to this day.
Today I finished a Stephen King classic: The Green Mile. I was ugly crying by the end, you know, delivering a full “Kim K sob” moment to the audience of my unimpressed teenage sister. I expected greatness, naturally. However, I hadn’t expected that I would be so immersed and emotionally involved, especially having seen the film a number of times. It turns out that great stories continue to hold a great power over their readers, no matter how many times they’ve read those pages or watched those films.
So, what’s the story?
Protagonist Paul Edgecombe is an elderly man living in a residential home. He spends his mornings going for mysterious walks into the woods, his days writing solitarily in the sunroom and his insomnia-riddled nights watching TV in the “resource center”. The subject of his writing is his earlier years, which were spent serving as a supervisory prison guard on Block E of Cold Mountain Penitentiary death row. This block is also known as “The Green Mile”, on account of the fact that the block features a green strip that leads directly from the bars of the jail cells all the way through to the room that hosts the electric chair, nicknamed Ol’ Sparky.
The main year of interest in his memoirs is 1932: the year that saw Block E populated by the likes of Delacroix, John Coffey and Wild Bill. Delacroix is a French-speaking, balding arsonist, rapist and murderer. Wild Bill is a sociopathic wild card and John Coffey, like the drink only not spelled the same, is a gentle-mannered giant who was found with the bodies of two bloodied and desecrated young girls in his arms.
A series of strange events take place in 1932. There’s the pernicious UTI festering in Edgecombe’s loins, a prison guard with a penchant for meanness, mice miraculously resurrected from almost-death and eventful executions that have the room smelling of burned flesh for the rest of time. 1932: this was a year that irrevocably changed Edgecombe’s life. Above all, 1932 was the year that cemented the legacy of John Coffey, the mysteriously vacant and supernatural inmate who changed the lives of all those around him.
Things I like about the novel:
I really enjoyed the format in which the novel is written. There’s obviously two timelines: Edgecombe’s present and the events of 1932. Both seamlessly weave in and out of each other, with Edgecombe slowly becoming more saturated in his memories as the novel goes on. Apparently, the novel was initially released in small paperback sections and then merged together into one due to demand from King’s faithful readers. This could explain the slight repetition among chapters, but even then, this never seemed to disrupt the flow of the narrative. Rather, it added a little quirk to Edgecombe’s account as he was flitting between present and past.
Another thing I loved was how there were whole chunks of narration, speech and imagery that came alive as I read and I realised that the movie had utilised a lot of the written material, with only a few deviations along the way. The movie, released in 1999, was ridiculously faithful to the book. As I was reading, I couldn’t help but picture the characters as they had been cast. Perhaps the greatest of all casting choices was that of John Coffey: Michael Clarke Duncan’s performance gained him a series of nominations for prestigious awards such as an Academy Award for Best Actor in a Supporting Role and a Golden Globe nomination for Best Performance by an Actor in a Supporting Role in a Motion Picture. While reading, it honestly felt as if King had written the entire part with only Duncan in mind.
Once again, King has worked his magic with the supporting cast so that even the most minor of the characters are fleshed out with such detail that they become as integral to the narrative as the core protagonists themselves. Nobody’s neglected, even Ol’ Sparky, Mr Jingles and Toot-Toot are given their time to shine and readers can’t help but regard them with as much affection and attention as the big wigs like Brutal, Harry and Dean.