Championed by bestselling authors such as Jacqueline Wilson and Patrick Ness, Maggie Gee’s Virginia Woolf in Manhattan was first published in 2014, to great acclaim. The Virginia Woolf Society of Great Britain, for instance, term it ‘a remarkable feat’ and ‘an exhilarating novel’.
The premise which Gee has focused upon is most inventive: ‘What if Virginia Woolf came back to life in the twenty-first century?’ Rather than simply muse upon this idea, Gee has fashioned quite an original story around it. A mid-life crisis has befallen her protagonist, bestselling author Angela Lamb. After her ‘irrepressible’ daughter Gerda has been left at her boarding school, Angela decides to take an impromptu flight to New York in order to ‘pursue her passion for Woolf, whose manuscripts are held in a private collection’. The following twist ensues: ‘When a bedraggled Virginia Woolf materialises among the bookshelves and is promptly evicted, Angela, stunned, rushes after her on to the streets of Manhattan.’ She soon becomes the chaperone of the novel’s ‘troublesome heroine’, as she tries to adjust to life in the modern – and rather bewildering – world.
The novel begins in an engaging manner, the tone, strong prose and wit of which is sustained throughout: ‘There is thunder as Angela flies to New York with Virginia Woolf in her handbag, lightning crackling off the wings of the plane’. In Virginia Woolf in Manhattan, Gee writes intelligently. It is clear to see that she is very practiced at her craft, and is comfortable with being playful in both her choices of vocabulary and turns of phrase.
The whole of Virginia Woolf in Manhattan has a marvellously contemporary feel to it; there are no constraints in terms of the text existing in strict, conformist paragraphs. I was reminded of Ali Smith at times, with regard to the thought which had clearly been given to the visualisation of the text. The narrative, too, has been well-handled. Portions are told from the imagined voices of both Woolf and Angela, and these alternate with the omniscient third person perspective, which gives a wonderful overview. Virginia Woolf in Manhattan is facetious, creative, and brimming with a plethora of thought-provoking scenes. It is the first of Gee’s books which I have read, but I can safely say that it certainly will not be the last.