Beatrice Colin - The Luminous Life of Lilly Aphrodite (4 stars)

Beatrice Colin

(John Murray)


This is a big, plush velvet cushion of a book, dense with historical detail and already picking up comparisons to Sarah Waters’ weighty, sexy epics. It’s the story of Lilly Aphrodite, an orphan turned silent movie star, whose trajectory mirrors Germany’s freefall from warring, empire-building superpower, through the Depression and seduction by Nazism, between 1900 and 1936. Lilly’s journey takes in serving jobs, seedy strip clubs, and the extreme, bloody poverty of the interwar years. Each chapter starts off with a vignette tracing the importance of the newly-developing cinematic art form to Germany’s constitutional and political pulse; like an audience in a movie theatre we watch saucy peep shows, faked news reports from the Front, the high art of German Expressionism, and Leni Riefenstahl’s beautifully-shot Nazi propaganda.

In this way, Lilly the beggar girl, typist and movie star becomes a lens to view a whole country and the glorious, downtrodden mass of its people. She herself has little more substance than the lovely flickering images of her on the screen, but she illuminates the glittering, compelling characters around her: rich, deceitful Eva, racketing round Berlin’s gay clubs, brutal mercenary Kurt and his lover, the hard-bitten former child prostitute Hanne. Colin’s omniscient narration recalls Muriel Spark at her sharpest and pokes into the futures of even the least significant supporting character, following them into trenches, concentration camps, hopes, regrets and reminiscences.

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