Book Review: Sandra Newman Puts A Feminist Spin On ‘1984’ With ‘Julia’

This book cover image released by Marina Books shows "Julia", a retelling of George Orwell's "1984", by Sandra Newman. (Marina Books via AP)


Rejoice, comrades! Almost 75 years after George Orwell’s “1984” was published in 1949, readers can return to Airstrip One with its Newspeak and Ministries of Truth, Peace, Love and Plenty. On second thought, maybe it’s not a place anyone wants to revisit. Maybe Orwell’s depiction of an ultra-totalitarian society in which “doublethink” — “Truth is Hate. Plenty is Hate. Peace is Hate. Love is Hate” — rules, hits a little too close to the real world in 2023.

But don’t let that argument dissuade you from reading Sandra Newman’s remarkable new novel, “Julia.” Marketed as a “retelling” of “1984” (Orwell’s estate actually approved its publication), it’s not quite as bleak as its progenitor. And the omniscient third-person feminist perspective from inside the head of Winston Smith’s lover, Julia, is refreshing.

Julia is a mechanic in the Ministry of Truth’s Fiction Department, “perpetually fascinated by the plot machinery, how it worked and the ways it could go wrong.” When we first meet her, she’s an ideal citizen — embracing the Party line in public, but always cognizant of Big Brother watching via the ubiquitous telescreens and expressing her cynicism only in private. Oh, and she’s falling in love with a young woman named Vicky at the hostel where they both live. In fact, it’s Vicky’s fondness for Julia that sets in motion the events that spark the plot of “1984.” The love note Julia slips to Winston Smith? Turns out Vicky actually slipped it first to Julia!

“1984” fans will enjoy experiencing the story from this point forward through Julia’s eyes, but for readers who aren’t Orwellian scholars, it’s important that “Julia” hold up on its own as well. Newman introduces the tenets of the Party — “War is Peace, Freedom is Slavery, Ignorance is Strength” — and describes the surveillance society of Big Brother in great detail and it’s all just as horribly shocking as when you read it the first time.

Don’t be discouraged though — after Winston and Julia, ahem, “rat” each other out to their torturers, we’re treated to a “Part Three” that actually goes beyond the plot of “1984.” It’s the rare answer to that perennial question at the end of a good book, “and then what happened?” And for a little while, just a little, readers can hope that rebellions aren’t always doomed, and an individual might have some power over the collective.

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