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BOOK REVIEW: The Danish Girl by David Ebershoff

| 29 January 2016 | Reply

BOOK REVIEW: The Danish Girl by David Ebershoff

Allen & Unwin
December 2015
Paperback, $19.99
Reviewed by Steph O’Connell




In the opening pages of this story, the reader is witness to the first time that Einar Wegener is asked to model for his wife’s painting. The subject of her painting, an opera singer named Anna, is otherwise engaged, and Einar does have the slender build to fit Anna’s dress, stockings, and shoes.

Einar is surprised at how much he enjoys the feel of the dress, and realises that it may be hinting at the thing he’s been missing his whole life; that he is, in fact, a woman.

And thus, Lili Elbe is born.


This has all the elements to be a compelling story about finding out who you truly are, fighting for who that is even if the world disagrees, and it explores the kind of suffering that relates to that struggle so well. But it is not, despite what the blurb suggests, much of a romantic story at all, and it deals with the issues in a rather unusual way.

It was the first time that Einar sensed how he was turning the world on its head by dressing as Lili. He could eliminate himself by pulling the camisole with the scallop-lace hem over his head. Einar could duck out of society by lifting his elbows and clasping the triple strand of Spanish pearls around his neck. He could comb his long soft hair around his face, and then tilt his head like an eager adolescent girl.

Perhaps this would have made a better love story if Einar and Lili hadn’t been portrayed as separate people; it might have made the whole thing a little less awkward. As it’s written, however, the reader is subjected to uncomfortable feelings as they watch Einar waste away and Lili become more prominent. We watch as Lili develops relationships with other men, and as Greta is left behind, cast aside,  while still technically married to a man who spends more time in a dress as Lili, and less time as the man he was born.

Greta had never turned Lili away. There were times over the course of the summer, when Einar would announce that Lili would be coming to dinner and Greta, drained from a day attending her failed exhibition would think, Oh, Lord, the last thing I want to do right now is dine with my husband dressed as a girl. But Greta would keep such thoughts to herself, biting her lip until she could taste her own blood.

This is a story about one person replacing another, one personality taking over residence of a body and forcing the other one out. As such, it doesn’t feel like a story about a transgender or intersex person, so much as a story about multiple personalities and the fallout.

The next day Greta told Lili she should stop seeing Henrik. ‘Do you think it’s fair to him?’ she asked. ‘To deceive him like this? What do you think he would think?’
But Lili didn’t quite understand what Greta meant. What would Henrik think about what? Unless Greta plainly told her, often Lili forgot who she was.
‘I don’t want to stop seeing him,’ she said.
‘Then please, stop seeing him for me.’

Perhaps it was the time period, and it was easier for the people involved to perceive them as different people, but it was rather disconnecting for this reader.

The unclear transitions from present tense to the past of the characters also contributes to this feeling like a longer read than it actually is, with the reader struggling at times to keep a handle on what’s happening, when, and to whom.

Overall, this is an interesting, though at times confusing and slow read, which blends historical fact with fiction in such a way that it can be difficult to tell what’s borrowed and what’s created, but it wandered off-topic a little too much for this reader’s taste.


Category: Book Reviews, Other Reviews

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