By Sandra Newman

Mariner Books


388pp/$30.00/October 2023

Cover by Luke Bird

Reviewed by Steven H Silver

Many novels are written to create a dialogue with earlier works of literature. Sandra Newman engages with George Orwell's seminal dystopia 1984 in Julia, which turns Winston Smith into a supporting character and focuses its attention on the previously underserved Julia, which means Newman is able to give voice to the half of the population Orwell barely incorporated into his novel.

Newman has clearly internalized the world of Orwell's novel, and her recreations of his scenes and settings from an alternative point of view are tremendously on point. The strength of the novel, however, comes when Newman branches out and explores places and themes that are foreign to the original book. Julia lives in a women's dormitory, where her role at the Ministry of Truth gives her an elevated place in the pecking order. Newman shows Julia taking on the responsibility to keep the dormitory functioning. It is here that the reader really sees how women are treated in this world. Women who carry children by artificial insemination (Artsems) are heroes while women who engage in sex, or worse, are impregnated the traditional way, are seen as enemies of the state.

The novel follows the basic plot of Orwell's novel, although Newman fleshes out the world of Oceania and Airstrip One in many ways. Furthermore, her explanations for what was really going on provide added depth to the original novel, often with interesting, and intelligent, twists. When Orwell wrote 1984, he was charting new territory. Seventy-five years later, his vision of a future dystopia has laid the groundwork for other authors, such as Newman, to more fully realize the horror of the authoritarian state he postulated, made even easier by more than seven decades of politicians who have taken the novel to be a "how-to" guide.

Even as Newman is able to build on the horrors of Orwell's vision and tailor them, specifically to their impact on women, the book lacks the visceral feel of 1984. Newman's world is deeper and more thought-out than the source material, but at the same time, even as she introduces new horrors, there is a familiarity to the world. The reader is aware of the underlying vileness of Big Brother's regime and how it tears down the individual. When the reader is first introduced to Winston Smith in 1984, the reader knows that the individual will triumph, because that is what happens in literature. In Julia, the reader is aware that the state will conquer all. The question is how much will Julia be able to discover of herself and what can she do against the juggernaut of Big Brother.

Although Julia lacks the power of 1984, it is a strong companion piece to the original novel, not only expanding Orwell's vision beyond his narrow focus to show the impact of fascism on all genders, but it also helps bring s freshness and urgency to the message he issued seventy-five years ago. The repetition of the tropes in 1984 have led to a complacency that allows its warnings to be too easily dismissed. By reimagining his world, Newman is able to draw more stark parallels to the world of 2024 that can't appear in a world which drew stark parallels to the world of 1948.

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