Book Review for “Vivian” by Christina Hesselholdt.
If you’ve never heard of Vivian Maier, that’s totally understandable. In fact, no one knew about her until about 2007, two years before she died, when the contents of her storage facilities were sold because she wasn’t paying her bills. What they found was a trove of her printed photographs, negatives, films and tape recordings. It is totally possible that had she been solvent, her life’s work might have remained hidden for much longer. I read on Wikipedia that one of the curators of her work said “She was a Socialist, a Feminist, a movie critic, and a tell-it-like-it-is type of person. She learned English by going to theaters, which she loved … She was constantly taking pictures, which she didn’t show anyone.” The little that’s known about this woman became the inspiration of Hesselholdt’s biographical novel, which was recently translated into English.
I came across this book while wandering the aisles of Foyles in London, among the “signed first addition” books. I’ll admit it, the very plain blue cover (which looks better in real life) and the sketchy blurb on the back were what drew me to this book (plus, I was bored with the print book I was in the middle of reading, and nothing else on my TBR pile was catching my fancy). What better way to shake things up than with a book by someone you’ve never heard of, about someone you know nothing about, who lived for some time in my old home town of Chicago, right? Right! Plus, the whole idea of a female photographer leaving behind thousands upon thousands of photographs reminded me a bit of Jane Davis’s novel “I Stopped Time” which I loved.
Well, I do have to say that this book certainly did shake things up for me, and Hesselholdt’s writing style was the main reason for this. What I mean by that is that Hesselholdt’s literary conceit is in how she injects herself into the narrative as “Narrator” where she comments not only on what Vivian did in her life, but also as if she speaks directly to Vivian as well as directly to her readers – thereby breaking the veritable fourth wall of both the present (okay, to be precise 2016, when the original book was published) and the past. She even has Vivian, as well as some of the other characters/personalities in the book reply to some of these interjections. This may sound a bit off-putting, but I actually think I enjoyed this to a certain extent. It is certainly a unique approach, and although it will jar you while you read, that might not be such a bad thing.
Further to this, Hesselholdt had all of the characters (who were, apparently real people in Vivian’s life, about which very little is known) telling bits and pieces of their story in first person. While this certainly felt like Hesselholdt was trying to round out Vivian’s life, giving it more shape and form from the very sketchy information available about her, it also took the focus off of Vivian. For example, there are whole swaths of pieces voiced by girl that Vivian apparently was hired to care for, which cover several years. Interspersed with those are bits from the girl’s mother. She obviously wasn’t terribly pleased with the job Vivian was doing, despite the fact that previous nannies had apparently been worse. The girl’s father also speaks up, but he’s more focused on things other than Vivian’s performance, such as the way she’s hording newspapers.
The biggest question one has to ask about this book is, do all these bits and pieces, all these characters and their interjections, together with Vivian’s accounts and the author’s additions that break the fourth wall, all wind up into a portrait of this mostly unknown woman? As artful as this all sounds – and it certainly is exceptional in its structure – I’m not totally sure that Hesselholdt achieved what I hoped she wanted to accomplish. Therefore, the next logical question is, did Hesselholdt really want to write a portrait of this woman? It could very well be that she really wanted to reveal only as little as possible, so that we’re left just as curious about Vivian as Hesselholdt probably was when she undertook to write this book. Of that was her intention, then she succeeded admirably. The style of this novel put me in mind of the novel “The Sunken Cathedral” by Kate Walbert, which has been categorized as “literary impressionism,” although the blurb on the back of the book calls it “documentary fiction” (fascinating, right?)!
Of course, this leaves me with a true dilemma regarding my rating and my recommendation. If you’re up for something where the form of the book is ultimately distinctive, possibly even groundbreaking, then you’re going to adore this book. However, if you’re looking for a full rounded study of the life of a very talented and prolific, but obscure personality, I’m thinking you aren’t going to like this novel even a little bit. I’m willing to forgive Hesselholdt for not giving me the latter, and obviously, if she hadn’t kept my interest, I would never have finished reading this. I think for the more adventurous readers, this book will easily get four stars or more, but readers with more conventional tastes will probably give it three or less. I’ll give it three and a half and recommend it, but only to those readers interested in taking a real risk on an innovatively written novel!
Fitzcarraldo Editions released “Vivian” by Christina Hesselholdt (translated from the Danish by Paul Russell Garrett) on June 19, 2019. This book is available (via the following affiliate links) from Amazon, Walmart (Kobo) US eBooks, the website eBooks.com, iTunes (iBook), Wordery or The Book Depository (both with free worldwide delivery), new or used from Alibris, used from Better World Books (promoting libraries and world literary), as well as from an IndieBound store near you.