Vivian by Christina Hesselholdt – review

I came across Vivian when I was browsing the Fitzcarraldo website looking for a new read, and the subject caught my imagination immediately. I confess I’d never heard of Vivian Maier, whose life story the book explores, but right from the off she sounded like a compelling character. Her family emigrated to America from Europe when she was a child and she spent the majority of her subsequent years there, living out a life that on the surface would seem pretty ordinary. She worked for many years as a nanny in Chicago and New York, but remarkably also found the time to take thousands upon thousands of photographs capturing the people and sights she encountered while walking the city streets. Vivian is an unusual take on the familiar trope of real lives made fiction, and one that raises questions as much as it provides answers.

I called it unusual because it’s not a straightforward third or first person narrative. Instead, the story is set out almost like a playscript, with a character’s name followed by their thoughts or description of events. These can be pages long, or a single line – sometimes two characters even converse with each other about abstract ideas surrounding the story, as if they’re considering things retrospectively. The narrator is a “character” too, appearing as simply “narrator” when it’s their turn to pass comment on events. She (I call it “she” because I automatically imagined it as the voice of Christina Hesselholdt herself, although of course this is only my interpretation) is the voice that grounds the reader in reality; she talks about her research and the gaps that inevitably appear when trying to compile a complete and fair account of someone else’s life, and as such we’re never able to forget that this is merely an attempt to put together a reasonable representation of Vivian Maier, and can only ever be flawed, both as a “biography” or indeed a fully satisfying novel.

What comes across without any doubt, however, is that Vivian is in many ways quite a sad figure. She comes from a dysfunctional and largely unhappy family (there are hints of some sexual abuse during her younger years) and doesn’t seem to have any meaningful relationships of any kind with other people during adulthood. She is, we learn, obsessive to an extreme extent, hoarding newspapers in her bedroom to the point when the only way through the room is via pathways between the teetering stacks of print. Strangely though, she seems to have a more ambivalent attitude to her own photographs. Although she takes her camera with her wherever she goes, and has been captivated (we learn) by the hobby since she was young, many of her pictures are never developed, and never catalogued or displayed in any way. Perhaps it’s the act of observing and choosing the precise moment for the perfect shot that’s most important to her, rather than having an end result in which she can take pleasure – but we never know for sure. One thing is clear: Vivian Maier never made any attempt to make a career out of her indubitable talent.

Such an enigmatic main character will always lead to a reader wanting to know more after the final page, but even so, I did feel the novel petered out somewhat towards the end, when the story became incredibly sketchy. Maybe there wasn’t a whole lot of evidence to draw on as regards Vivian’s later years, but her old age is skimmed over pretty quickly, with new characters introduced but never really developed, even though we’re given to understand they played a part in looking after her towards the end of her life.

As I said earlier, however, the author (speaking through her “narrator”) is open about the challenges of writing such a book, and by the end it becomes almost as much about the act of creation than is is about Vivian herself. The narrator even resorts to conversing with her protagonist towards the end of the book, as if she realises her readers will have questions she hasn’t been able to answer. Why, she asks Vivian, did you not do x, y and z? Fictional Vivian gives an elusive, inexact reply – an acknowledgement that of course we can never claim to know what went through someone’s head at any given time when perhaps they weren’t even sure themselves. In some ways, the novel is a rebuttal to those fictionalised accounts of real lives that give the illusion of being a reliable insight into a person’s psyche. I know that as a reader I’ve been so swept up by certain novels featuring real figures from history that they almost become the historical reality in my own head – I have to remind myself that Philippa Gregory shouldn’t be my first point of reference when citing fascinating facts about the Tudors! I did appreciate the way the author shone a light on the act of writing a novel of this kind, rather than it just being a straightforward retelling; it ensured that as a reader you were never able to drop your guard and stop thinking, or start assuming, and I enjoyed that approach very much.

Vivian was certainly a very interesting read, and for the vast majority of the book a very compulsive one – I put everything else I was reading aside and finished it in a day, unusual for me. I resisted the urge to look up Vivian Maier’s photographs online until I’d finished, as I didn’t want the images I already had in my head messed with in any way. When I’d finished, though, I did look into her work – and I’d really recommend you do the same, as suddenly the sadness and isolation that seeped out from the pages of the novel was there in front of you, literally in black and white.

Have you read Vivian and if so, what did you think? I’d love to hear your thoughts.

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