How to Be a Heroine by Samantha Ellis
You can never read too much. Samantha Ellis proves it through this laugh-out-loud, intensely observed journey through her colourful life, measured against her literary heroines (or, as some turn out, villains and tricksters). “Or, what I’ve learned from reading too much” might be the byline of this guffaw-worthy memoir of sorts, but books are the foundation of Ellis’ world, the anchor for her sense of self.
This fascinating and insightful book imparts more and more deeply than the fun cover suggests. Not judging here – this is at once a frivolous and searching read that confronts the reader with questions about their heroines, their hopes and dreams and where they might have gone wrong.
Ellis clearly yearns for a part of her history that is lost; her Iraqi-Jewish heritage surrounds her but her family are unable and unwilling to return to an Iraq that betrayed them. This is perhaps the greatest catalyst for this playwright’s love of reading, to escape the haunting of a place for her that never was. What she finds instead are friends in the girls and women of the books she reads. She moulds her life on them, measuring her stories and successes against theirs in a way so many others do.
Ellis has a spark in her that has not been dimmed by “wrong” readings of her best-loved books – she shares with her readers laughter, secrets and a remarkably forthright way of taking one hard look in the mirror (without self-deprecation) and moving on. The fiesty author knows the importance of her heroines at certain moments, and loves them for it, but also that they will not always be as they once were. This journey feels like an epic shaking off of fast-held beliefs and ideals.
A frank, feminist and firm look at role models and how they shape us as people – Ellis looks back at Cathy Earnshaw now with a fond but grown-up eye and laments the days she idolised the Little Mermaid. Favourite characters are torn limb from limb here, but cleverly, reverently and with a genuine love of literature that shines out from the pages.
This is a book that can teach so much about the self; it can make struggles so wound up in the past and in the novels that stay with you come clear. Nostalgic, warming and a stern lesson for life, How to Be a Heroine should be on everyone’s bookshelf.
How to Be a Heroine is published by Chatto & Windus at the hardback price of £16.99. For further information visit here.