When I realised that the premise of this book is that Virginia Woolf has come back from the dead I experienced a moment of intense frustration – that’s a stupid and impossible idea, I thought, what is Maggie Gee thinking? It took me a while to recover and, as a result, I didn’t really like the first third or so of this book. The final third is also disappointing – although it did help me understand some of the earlier threads better. But as ever, with Gee’s writing, there are moments of sheer brilliance in what’s a slightly quirky and beautifully alive novel.
The premise with which I have such issue does allow Gee to explore some interesting ideas, most notably the differences between the life of a modern novelist and one like Woolf, their interaction with readers, with publishers and the nature of the book industry. There are some real gems of moments when Woolf is struggling to understand things like the internet, cosmetic surgery and elevators. There’s also a powerful sense of what made her such an exquisite writer, her vivaciousness, how she felt the world around her, delighted in its colours, smells and sights whilst at the same time pained by it too.
Gee has created a character entirely in keeping with the woman we think we know from her novels and diaries, yet also challenges the myth and the icon that is Woolf – and at times even tramples all over it. Her modern day companion, Angela, considers at one point:
Did I know her at all? Had all my reading of her books meant nothing? How much did we ever know anyone?
I’d thought all her characters were part of herself, that by adding them together, you came up with the author,a shifting composite, the details uncertain but the basic shape, against the light, constant.
Of course, she is wrong and yet in the final section of the book Gee references much of Woolf’s writing, something that helped me enormously in my understanding of the earlier parts. I think I would get have got much more from the novel if I knew more about Woolf (I haven’t read any since my degree days, over 25 years ago). And although Gee insists the book stands alone, she also admits it’s heavy with meaningful parallels with Woolf’s life and own writing. For example, Woolf first appears in Manhattan in a private library from which she is at risk of being kicked out if seen, and women not being allowed into Oxford Library is how A ROOM OF ONE’S OWN begins. So whilst Gee actively questions the idea that Woolf is the woman we have met in her own writing, she also simultaneously reinforces it.
Woolf is reincarnated in the presence of a self-centred modern novelist, Angela Lamb, who also appears in Gee’s THE FLOOD (by far my favourite book of hers). Both struggle with the relationship that has been thrust upon them and, in true Gee style, neither evoke much sympathy from the reader. They are selfish, self obsessed and lacking in self awareness. Both are given a voice to comment on the same experiences and situations, sometimes switching line by line, thereby highlighting the vast difference between their responses and feelings, interpretations and understanding. It can make for a slightly fragmented read at times but overall I liked this approach and the way it’s used to draw out the competitiveness between the women is wickedly clever and funny.
The presence of another novelist adds to Gee’s point about never really knowing whether what’s written is an insight into the writer or not. And the use of both women’s voices, on the heels on one another, demonstrates the extent to which even what we say, seemingly as ourselves, is shaped by how we want others to see us.
Interwoven with Angela and “Ginnie’s” voices, we also hear that of Gerda, Angela’s precocious and slightly neglected daughter, unhappy at her boarding school and teetering between childhood and becoming a young adult. The most honest voice in the book, Gerda is just learning how words can determine how people see and treat you, their power to do good and to cause harm, the escape they can offer and the trap they set. She’s a useful foil to the word weary published novelists and is my favourite character in VIRGINIA WOOLF IN MANHATTAN. I hope Gee writes her a book of her own.
Angela is in Manhattan to carry out research for a paper she is giving at an international conference in Istanbul. A conference about Virginia Woolf and to which she ends up taking the Bloomsbury writer. It’s a trip down memory lane for Virginia, who went there with her sister, and also an opportunity to change some of the past from which she has been woken. So she has a brief love affair, buys a new hat and finds peace with the idea of writing for the here and now, rather than worrying about how history might pass judgement. Realising “We live in others. We live in words” allows her to let go of the present.
Turkey also creates a space in which the two writers perspectives can be partly reconciled – they are both feeling their way in a new world, in which religious extremism seems to be centre stage, trying to figure out what it means. For once, neither has the upper hand, both can respond from the heart and Angela’s voice begins to echo Virginia’s – she smells the city, bathes in its light and tastes its flavours. Gerda helps with this reconciliation and in doing so reveals something of herself to Angela, something we hope means there will be a little less neglect in future.
The conference itself is much too contrived and then there’s a terrible scene on an aeroplane during which we learn, a la Dallas, that it was all just a dream. But I can forgive Gee a great deal, for she never fails to dazzle me and I have to recommend this book simply on the basis that surely nobody else would have the audacity to write anything like it!