Because the cinema is always an escape, no matter how bad the world outside.
Publisher: John Murray (Hodder & Stoughton)
First Published: 24th July 2008
Date Reviewed: 16th January 2013
Lilly Nelly Aphrodite was sent to an orphanage after a failed adoption, and in the first years of the 20th century, living in such a place is bleak. She loves the nun who runs the orphanage, however, and makes friends with Hanne, who brought her (Hanne’s) siblings to the door following the suicide of their mother. But the orphanage will not always be around and life is destined to lose its peacefulness. And in war-torn Germany, it’s hard to get by when you have no relations to help you.
The Luminous Life Of Lilly Aphrodite (titled The Glimmer Palace in America) is the story of a girl’s struggle to live a good life and break free of the stigma of her background. Not quite the luminous life you might expect (more on this in a moment) it manages to not only show how awful the First and Second World Wars were but also puts them in the context of life in Germany. Some of the main characters are Jewish, which gives Colin the opportunity to explore the strife of Jews in a first-hand manner. The inclusion of the film industry allows her to show how life went on despite major social problems, and how the government exploited the media for their own gain.
To be sure this book isn’t, for the most part, about film, despite what the summary and title (both British and American) suggest. Lilly does become an actress but she must make it through several hardships first. Indeed one could consider the title to be ironic, looking at the realities of the backgrounds of film stars who have not come from wealthy families, and the way that Lilly’s early life is the very opposite of happy and luminous. What Lilly’s life is, however, is incredibly interesting, both as a work of fiction and for the factual content it offers the reader. In a world where the villain is not given a voice, Colin’s focus on Germany, and on its citizens, is poignant.
There is a lot of sexual content in the book; there are affairs and the odd sex scene, but what is put in the spotlight is the way adults reacted to children. Colin never implies that paedophilia was widespread, but she does imply that it happened a lot – in other words she never glosses over it. The author tells of street corners and girls dressed as women. Lilly’s friend, Hanne, enables Colin to look further, as Hanne becomes a prostitute and performer at a seedy bar. Where Lilly demonstrates liberation and bettering oneself, Hanne demonstrates what happens when people are neglected and left to fend for themselves. Colin deals with this well and never casts any character as bad unless necessary. It should be noted that there is also a lot of love, both platonic and romantic, and not all of it is mutual or appreciated. Yet behind all this is the fact of the war and the way it made sex more prominent, taboo preferences no longer hidden, and meetings for payment rife.
Given that the book focuses on Lilly’s early life, there is in fact little overall about the German film industry. For the most part, the industry is confined to the first page of each chapter and Colin accounts film premieres, the relationships between stars, and the reaction of people to the extras on screen that they recognise and denigrate for appearing in propaganda. Whilst these events relate to Lilly few times, they provide plenty of new voices to aid Colin in the description of war-torn and then Nazi Germany.
And war-torn Germany was as awful if not worse than other countries. Colin describes the starving, the effect of disease on an already weakened population, and the lengths desperate people go to obtain food. All this is contrasted with wealth, as Colin not only details the lives of those who had no reason to worry about inflation or hunger, but has some of her characters be part of that set also to the effect that the reader, who has just witnessed utter poverty, is thrown with Lilly into a world of expensive toiletries and plentiful amenities. Not only does it give you something to think about, it exposes the corruption and has the ability to truly impact the reader on the average person’s behalf.
The book may be about Lilly in name, premise, and angle, but really it is the story of a nation. It could have used more detailing about the film industry and not been quite so convenient at times, but it cannot be said that it fails to make an impact. The Luminous Life Of Lilly Aphrodite is not so much about Lilly but about anyone of the time. And it is that that makes it a winner.
January 23, 2013, 11:22 am
I read this when it was first published and I loved it too. I’m not really interested in the film industry so I’m quite pleased that information was kept to a minimum, but what I loved was Lily’s character – she lept from the page and I still remember her 5 years on.
January 23, 2013, 1:11 pm
I didn’t know the book, but it looks interesting; I love reading about the World War II, and I don’t know very much about the history of film industry, so I think I would like it.
Thanks for the review!
January 26, 2013, 12:22 pm
Jackie: That’s an interesting thing to consider – I found the film aspect lacking, but then I’m interested in the industry quite a bit. I wonder how my review might have been if I wasn’t at all interested. Lilly is really rather good. I liked hoe Colin made her somewhat immune to downfall yet didn’t make her out to be a pure person or anything.
Isi: If you like WWII you’d likely like it, there is a lot about the civilian side of things and information about the affect on soldiers when they returned home. You’re welcome!