Oct 16, 2012

Book review: "The Testament of Judith Barton"

Vertigo poster
WARNING: movie and book spoilers ahead

The poster of Hitchcock's awesome Vertigo shows two figures falling: first "Scottie" Ferguson, black, bold and defined. The second, a girl, simply outlined. To be honest, I hadn't noticed this second figure before. My eyes just identified the man. Maybe I don't have a good vision and I should see a doctor. Anyway, I think it's a good representation of the movie's emphasis: we are Scottie, we perceive things like him, we solve the case with him.

Kim Novak's character is always a mystery, a lonely woman, an oniric presence. And when the mystery is solved, we are happy with that, "oh, she wasn't the real Madeleine, she wasn't possessed by Carlota Valdés, that supernatural story couldn't be true". And the little background information we have about the girl that played Madeleine is enough to feel sorry for her, wrap up the plot with satisfaction and realize Hitch was a terrific director.

But writers Wendy Powers (the wife) and Robin McLeod (the husband), thought "but WHO is this girl? HOW did she become involved in this intrincated charade? WHY did she expose herslelf to be used this way? WHEN did she realize the game had gone too far?". Well, I wasn't there but I guess that's what they thought. And yes, people at my university you can have my journalism diploma back, I don't care.

So they decided to write a novel about Judy Barton and answer all these questions. Her childhood and adolescence are very important in the book. The attachment to her father and his work as a jewelry/clocks repairer, her love for the theater and the lack of confidence in herself are her main motives, the things that will make her take her important decisions. These motives are illustrated by several, ordinary situations. And because they are ordinary, you feel close to her. 

The Testament of Judith Barton is easy to read. Told in past tense, in first person and using dialogues and brief descriptions of actions as the main resource, the chapters go by really quickly. You have a motivation: you want to reach the part in which this new background finally connects with the story you knew. And that happens half way through the book, when Judith meets Gavin Elster. From then is like being behind the scenes. The writers describe something that appeared in the film, but now you know Judy and now you see it from her perspective. Of course, there are new situations that involve Judith and "Scottie", like a dialog in the car when he opens up and she feels awful.

Animated gif of Vertigo
Source

All these aspects were really easy to accept. The writers did a good job with the story, which is ordinary as it should be. My only great problem with the book is how they decided to work with the fact that most readers know Judith is dead from the beginning. The prologue where Judith starts talking about an unpleasant taxi ride with Elster and then introduces you to her childhood makes you think that she was writing her memoirs before she died. This is idea is reinforced by having "The Testament of Judith Barton" as your title. 

Until the last pages I convinced myself that Judith also had writing interests and noticing that she was in danger decided to leave all the facts written down for Scottie, her family, friends and the police. But no. The moment when she says that she started writing her story or that she is going out with "Scottie" and then there is just a blank page with the code bar and the editorial information never comes. And you think "uhm, but now who is going to end the story? She's going to be dead soon".

Well, she ends it. And that I can't understand. For me, the last chapter where she talks in present tense about  being broken on the ground and about to die was completely unnecessary. We knew how the story ends and this passage just raises questions: is the whole story told by a dying Judith? And if it is, how come her mind was able to recall her whole life in such a clear way and just in a few minutes? And whom is she speaking to? The final words are emotive and sad but in order to have them in the book you risk the reader's suspension of disbelief. And that's always complicated. 

Reading The Testament of Judith Barton helped me to appreciate even more Vertigo and its female figure. It offered me a story that feels natural in terms of the events and motivations, but made me feel suspicious about its form at some points. Still, the first two aspects make this book worth reading, especially if you're a fan of this film. 

Disclaimer: I was contacted by Wendy Powers in March and she was kind enough to send me a paperback copy of the book. I apologize for the delay in writing this review. 

4 comments :

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Rachel said...

Thanks for the review, Clara. I've been meaning to check this one out. I've always wondered why a girl like Judy would fall so obsessively in love with Scottie and I'm curious to see how the book addresses that.

silverscreenings said...

This sounds interesting. I'm going to look for it at the library.

Paula said...

Vertigo is one of my favorite Hitchcock movies and I can't believe I never noticed the woman in the poster either! And you're right, Kim Novak's character is so mysterious, we know very little about her. The book has an interesting premise.

Anyway, just to let you know that I'm sending the Premio Dardos your way. You can check the details on my blog (http://thecultureenthusiast.blogspot.com) if you wish to accept it. Thanks, Paula xx

Clara said...

@Rachel: You're welcome, it's a nice read :)Thanks for stopping by!

@silverscreenings: Yes, it's interesting. Hope you find a copy :) Thanks for visiting.

@Paula: Yeah, "Vertigo" is awesome and I'm glad I'm not the only one that didn't see the woman in the poster :) Thank you very much for the Premio, you're very kind.

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