Around two weeks ago now I picked up a copy of The Danish Girl from HMV (£2.99 guys, £2.99!!). I’m pretty sure that most of us have seen the trailer for the Eddie Redmayne film, if not the film itself. But today, I’ll be dealing with the book, written by David Erbershoff. I’m less certain many of us know that the book and film are loosely based around the life of a real woman, named Lili Elbe.
Lili Elbe was born Einar Wegener in Denmark, in 1882. Einer worked as an artist, and eventually was one of the first to undergo gender reassignment surgery, having begun living as a woman some time previously. Though the transition operations were successful, Lili later died from post-op complications. The author’s note in the back of the book tells us that the storyline follows real events, though it is only loosely based upon them, with the characters themselves being close to fictionalised – as, obviously, no one can know the true feelings of Gerta (Einer’s wife, named Greta in the book), or Lili, or Einer themselves. The novel takes place over six years, where we see Greta and Einer move around from Copenhagen to Paris, whilst coming to terms with how their future will look with Lili in the picture.
Though I enjoyed the read (I couldn’t put it down), and Ebershoff writes beautifully, more could have been done to cover the feelings of displacement Lili goes through when she realises that she is in fact a woman in a man’s body. I’ve seen a fair amount of online critique of this, and though in one sense I agree, I have to say that I can see why Ebershoff chose not to go into such detail. For anyone not in the position Lili Elbe was in herself, to write a story including her point of view, and those surrounding her, must have been a challenge. Though not perfect, Ebershoff did rise to this.
Which brings me to characterisation. Did I like the characters? I loved Lili and Einer’s characters. I love how Ebershoff portrays them as being completely different people (though I am aware that some reviews say this points to Lili having disassociate personality disorder). I felt that this indicated to a reader unfamiliar with the topic that Lili and Einer are different people, though I can see how this may muddy the water as well. Einer is shy and retiring; Lili, though shy, is more comfortable in herself and comes across as a more vivid and natural character. I felt sorry for Greta, and I saw where she was coming from for a lot of the book, though she did irritate me at other times. Though Einer saw Greta as self-confident, it became clear that underneath she was quite insecure- and this became easier to understand as the novel went on, and parts of her past were revealed. I also, though saddened by it, understood her decision not to accompany Lili to the Women’s Clinic for the final time.
The novel has a running theme of how people appear to those around them vs. how they really are, strongly embodied in Einer and Greta. As mentioned before Greta has a self-confident air, but underneath this is feeling just as isolated and alone as Einer. Einer, on a literal level, appears to be the male artist Einer, but is actually the young woman, Lili. Both characters have to come to terms with the disparity in their appearance and their reality, making this a novel about immense courage.
The ending of the novel gives no sense of closure. Lili, having had the final operation in the hope of being able to one day be a mother (I’m skipping a lot of spoilers out here, though I am including a few as well, because I want you to follow Lili’s story for yourselves) sits on The Balcony of Europe, and watches the kite a couple of boys are flying, snap and float away. Does this symbolise Lili eventually dying in the near future, as she is in a lot of pain, and suffering from an infection (along the lines of the real story of Lili Elbe)? Or saying the final goodbye to Einer? Or simply letting go of her past? The lack of closure did irk me in the moment, but I can’t think of any other way I would have wanted the novel to end- certainly not with the sad truth of the real life story, as I had grown attached to the character of Lili.
The love Greta and Einer had for each other as husband and wife translates into something more tender and sisterly as the novel goes on, though Greta does struggle to let go of Lili when she wants to live her own life. Effectively, Greta is grieving for a husband. It was easy to see where the writer was coming from by portraying Einer after Lili had fully transitioned, as a person she once knew a long time ago. Overall I feel that the novel was skilfully and sensitively written, for any flaws, and I recommend it wholeheartedly.