#Transgender Awareness Week Book Review: ‘The Danish Girl’ by David Ebershoff (with some spoilers!)



Please note: this review is a repost from a 2015 post on The Breathing Ghosts Series Blog– the official blog for my series of novels- and is in honour of Transgender Awareness Week 2016 (14-20 November 2016.)

Blurb from Goodreads:

Now a major motion picture starring Eddie Redmayne and directed by Tom Hooper, THE DANISH GIRL is a shockingly original novel about one of the most unusual and passionate love stories of the 20th century.
Loosely inspired by a true story, this tender portrait of marriage asks: What do you do when the person you love has to change?

It starts with a question, a simple favour asked by a wife of her husband while both are painting in their studio, setting off a transformation neither can anticipate. Uniting fact and fiction into an original romantic vision, The Danish Girl eloquently portrays the unique intimacy that defines every marriage and the remarkable story of Lili Elbe, a pioneer in transgender history, and the woman torn between loyalty to her marriage and her own ambitions and desires.

The Danish Girl is an evocative and deeply moving novel about one of the most passionate and unusual love stories of the 20th century.


Now, unless you’ve been living under a rock, you will have seen the jaw-droppingly gorgeous photos of Eddie Redmayne dressed in character as Lili Elbe (red hair, red lipstick, Bambi eyes, major swooooon,) who was one of the very first people to undergo pioneering transgender surgery in the 1930s. This is for the film, The Danish Girl, which also stars the majorly talented Alicia Vikander as his wife. (I’m hoping to write a review once I watch it so stay tuned folks!!) The film is based on Ebershoff’s original award-winning novel of the same name, which- although not published in 2015-I had the fortune to read for the first time this year (hence this post.)

As you will all know from reading my blog, and from reading posts such as this, I believe that transgender people from all backgrounds should be respected and supported- especially when transgender violence is still prevalent- and Lili Elbe holds a special place in my heart as a true warrior and inspiration. So it’s no surprise that I was beyond excited to read about her heart-wrenching story. The Danish Girl (TDG) is a bittersweet, beguiling account of a single person’s butterfly-like transformation from Einar, a happily married bohemian painter, into Lili- a coquettish, vulnerable, brave woman of fragile but enthralling beauty. It also looks in depth at what effect this has on Lili’s marriage to Greta (who in real life was called Gerda,) a painter herself, who uses Lili’s unique looks as inspiration for some of her most successful paintings. With the support and unerring love of Greta, and a reunion with a childhood friend, Lili begins to blossom and unfurl her wings and Einar fades into the background, but along the way Lili has to face prejudice, (medical) ignorance and brutal operations. Some of it is- yes, I’ll admit it- hard to read and difficult to face. Some of it had me biting my lip and fighting back tears. This is not a simple, sugar-sweet Disney story, where Lili makes a wish or kisses a frog, and- pooof!-becomes a woman in a swirl of pink smoke. This is real, and painful, and transformative. Lili is a true inspiration, and I’m so glad she’s finally getting the spotlight she deserves, and at the hands of such a great writer.

Ebershoff writes masterfully and poetically the whole novel through, invoking the feel, taste and sense of 1930s Copenhagen, right down to the art that Greta paints, the fashions that Lili wears, and perfume that both Lili and Greta choose. Memorable scenes include when Lili kisses a man for the first time, and when Lili, dressed as Einar, begins to mirror the motions of a prostitute, gesture for gesture, from behind a screen. Another is when a teenage Einar (before her transition into Lili) pretends to be a woman for the first time by trying on her mother’s apron. It’s meant to be a child’s game, but for Einar/Lili, it obviously means so much more. These scenes are heart-breakingly sad, but described in vivid, exquisite detail.

In fact, the whole novel is so lavish with description it feels almost like a breath of perfume transmuted into words- fragile, gentle, nostalgic, at times seductive as well as bitter. Adjectives waft around, descriptions are scattered like sequins on the floor of Lili and Greta’s shared bedroom- bright, frequent, glittering.  It’s heady, intoxicating, almost too much. At times I will admit I wanted a little more clarity as to who Lili really was, and to how her childhood shaped her, (some things as well- such as Lili’s increasingly frequent bleeding from various areas of her body- were never really cleared up or explained, I felt.) It’s clear that Lili herself is, within the novel, a mystery, a lovely and luminous cipher that is never quite decoded. She doesn’t fit into one neat little box, she isn’t ticked off a list and filed away, or marked as ‘safe.’ She is wholly different, wholly other.

Perhaps that part of the reason why I liked her character so much- she isn’t easily definable, or readable (perhaps like the novel, at times.) Sometimes, like too much perfume itself, it all felt a little too dense. Reading TDG was intense enough to make me have a break from reading for a few days afterwards- I needed breathing space myself. This novel moved me deeply- Ebershoff writes so skilfully and sensitively about both Lili’s trials and transformation, and Greta’s love for Einar and deepening fondness for Lili, it’s hard not to get sucked in. It’s hard not to feel every moment, every one of Lili’s rare smiles, or her girlish laughs, or the slow but sharp breaking of Greta’s heart, as her husband becomes something else entirely.

All in all, this may not be an easy read, but it is one that will stay with you for a long, long time.

Overall rating- 9 out of 10.

This book in four words: Sensual. Poignant. Exquisite. Intense.

Read if you enjoyed: ‘Brokeback Mountain’ (also known as ‘Close Range’ or ‘The Wyoming Stories’) by E. Annie Proulx

You can buy a copy of TDG from Amazon, or from your local bookseller (where you can buy a copy with the lovely Eddie’s face on it!)

Note: If you’d like to find out more about transgender issues, please check out the links below. (There are also links to transgender resources and charities on my website.) Stay safe, stay happy, stay brave and above all be yourself!🙂

Transgender Day of Remembrance (TDOR)

It Gets Better Project


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