Book Review: “Julia” by Sandra Newman

Date started: 27th October 2023
Date finished: 28th October 2023
Format: eBook
Rating: 2 stars

Warning: contains spoilers



When I heard about this book recently, I knew I had to read it. Nineteen Eighty-Four is a book very special to me – I’ve read it so many times I can quote huge chunks of it from memory. It’s an amazingly powerful novel, perceptive and prophetic, and I pick up new things from it every time I read it.

It’s not perfect, though, and one of the major criticisms of it is the character of Julia, and the way she is portrayed. Writing the story from her perspective sounded like a fascinating idea, and I went into reading this book aware that it had a tough job to do, but hopeful that it would do it well.

It got off to a very promising start. Orwell’s work was very big on the structure of society and how the Party maintained power, but glimpses of everyday life, outside Winston’s experience, were very few. Newman impressively expands upon life for the average Oceanian citizen, and seems to do the source material justice in this. Characters like the Meltons, and Julia’s fellow hostel-dwellers, give colour and character to everyday life in Oceania. We find out a lot more about Julia’s early life and the things that shaped her character. She initially comes off as a fascinating and complex person, with a determination to live the best life she can in almost impossible circumstances.

So far, so good. It really drew me in, and I couldn’t wait to see where it was all going. Unfortunately, by the time I was about halfway through the book, things started to go wrong.

There’s a plot twist regarding Julia’s motivations about halfway through, and although it’s a really interesting idea, it doesn’t feel convincingly executed and it feels like it jars quite badly with the source material. I was willing to give the author the benefit of the doubt, but Julia’s subsequent arrest and torture again felt somewhat inconsistent and poorly written, and didn’t seem to fit very well with the first book, and how she’s described when Winston sees her after his release.

Also, Orwell is adamant that what happens in the Ministry of Love is permanent and extremely damaging, basically wrecking someone’s ability to function as a normal human being. No-one is released until the Party has completely brought them into line. We see this with Winston, but although Julia initially seems to go the same way, she then somehow manages to become a functional human being again, all rather quickly. At the same time, the author brings in a plot development that takes the story forward in a way that doesn’t feel even remotely loyal to the source material – she makes the Party’s reign collapse.

It’s done very unconvincingly indeed. It happens very fast, without much detail, and in a way that feels completely at odds with Orwell’s work, which goes to great lengths to describe how the Party makes itself infallible. The whole point of Nineteen Eighty-Four is that is is extremely bleak, and offers no hope at all. It’s designed to warn the world not to allow a regime like that to develop. Once it has, it’s too late. The Party will reign forever. Newman brings it down like a house of cards, with Julia somehow walking right into significant events in a very unconvincing way.

Carrying on the story beyond the end of Orwell’s work just feels wrong, and the book doesn’t do the source material justice in doing this. There’s too many coincidences with the other characters appearing in various places, and the scene where Julia meets an elderly Big Brother are very badly written.

While the initial two-thirds or so of the book are often good, despite a few problems here and there, the final part is very badly done and a big disappointment. I very much enjoyed the pictures of Oceanic society painted by an author who clearly enriched Orwell’s work nicely, but the plot was not convincing or well-executed at all.

I actually thought Orwell’s version of Julia was better than Newman’s, and given how much the former has been criticised, I think that’s quite telling. Sometimes less is more.

This could have been something really special, but was ultimately pretty disappointing. I’m really struggling to accept this as an official “world of Nineteen Eighty-Four” book, and in all honesty, I’d rather it hadn’t been written.

It deserves a couple of stars for the better-written parts, of which there are a fair few, but if you’re particularly fond of Orwell’s original work, prepare to be disappointed. I should point out I really wanted to like this, but struggled to do so.

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