picked up The Magnetic Diaries for the first time, I couldn't help doubting
its ambition. It's been more than ten years since I first read Madame
marked a maturation in my reading and I was concerned that modernising such a
familiar text would feel clumsy or gratuitous. However, The Magnetic
is a sensitive reworking and beautifully rendered writing back, as well as a
lyrical and experimental response to Flaubert's Madame Bovary, a book that still has
the power to disrupt widely recognisable norms, like dysfunctional
relationships and the boredom of the everyday. Sarah James modernises the novel, releasing it from its
nineteenth century binding, and gives it freedom to move in the contemporary.
Somehow, the way a novel like Madame Bovary can dance between you
and the page is captured perfectly:
... How do they do it,
those who run across
lightly, stopping only
for elegant flourishes of
James uses the contemporary setting to frame her collection and there are
several references to it throughout, such as email, QR code and doctor's case
notes. These structure the collection and are embedded in the text, fitting
naturally as formal choices rather than gimmicks:
Reassessed after four weeks of
treatment (20 sessions)
[from 'Case Notes']
The only weakness, for me, is a practical one. The presence of the QR codes
cut me off from fully understanding some aspects of the collection. A QR is a
matrix of patterns that you scan with your phone, which reads the code like a
message and performs its command. It is a potentially interesting way of
interacting with the text but I won't be alone in not having the technology
to translate it.
Sarah James contextualises Emma in the twenty-first century in a way that
breathes life into the nineteenth-century cadaver. Emma is no longer
bargaining for her property or caught in the saint/whore binary of the fin
In the Magnetic Diaries, she is raw with modern sensitivities; a
diagnosed depressive, complex and struggling to find meaning in her life.
This fatal mix is no less destructive in her marriage but her struggles seem
closer to home for a contemporary readership. We are more used to the
There are moments in Madame Bovary that read like prose poetry and James
acknowledges Flaubert's use of the lyrical by borrowing and re-using his
imagery. She has managed to weave the text convincingly into the
collection. This tight binding reveals a sensitive discourse between James
Emma Bovary is now Emma Bailey and Normandy has become Southern England. Emma is a poet, as well as a reader,
and her bouts of fancy and caprice are transformed into writing poems that
are intelligent and expressive. The poems in her diary reveal Emma's inner
turmoil and her battle with depression. This Emma occasionally emerges in Madame
but is pushed aside in Flaubert's eagerness to describe a fallen woman.
Neither Emma can find happiness in picturesque dreams of married life or
In her diary, Emma Bailey writes to her daughter Beth,
Oh rose, though art, so
smoothness in this vase.
Small sharp edges
clipped, our budding
faces shaped to one
She juxtaposes the traditional image of the rose, its thorns cut smooth and
civilised, with harsher, more contemporary ideas of high definition and
One of the most successful poems in the collection is 'Unmedical Notes'. The
poem is made up of quotations collected by Emma and its simplicity and
recalling of Madame Bovary shows us the relationship between the
collection and its source material.
- She wished both to die, and
to live in Paris
(Gustav Flaubert, Madame
[from 'Unmedical Notes']
The twenty-first century Emma gets both her wishes. James replaces Paris with
London, which Emma Bailey finds disappointing and destructive to mental
well-being. Her death wish comes at the end and is just as bleak as Emma
Life is an unwanted present to Emma Bailey and her nineteenth-century shadow.
Her emotions are always moving in and out of extremes, but behind the
flourishes of sentiment there is a blankness, a desperate desire to feel
...The therapist tells me
aware of the senses,
present in each moment.
Ice winds sting, my
throat is grated beetroot.
Even without reality's
my brain refuses to be
drained of what ifs.
[from 'Unwanted Presents']
James gives us a glimmer of hope. She ends her collection with Emma's death,
but after the last poem she invites the reader to choose a different
resolution for Emma. You can access five alternative endings by scanning the
QR code of your choice. Or, if you're a Luddite like me, you can email James
and she'll send you the link for your chosen ending.
I received two endings, both written with sensitivity and subtlety. Nothing
can quite undo the fatalistic tone of Madame Bovary's outcome, but there is
much to be glad of in the everyday uncrumpled. I am glad my Emma eventually
saw the shadow she cast.
Sarah Cave 2016