Thursday, 9 October 2014

The Hunchback of Notre Dame by Victor Hugo

Set in Paris in 1482 the story of Quasimodo, the deformed bell ringer of Notre Dame, is a familiar one. He is shunned by all for his grotesque appearance until Esmeralda, the beautiful dancing gypsy, takes pity on him. So begins Quasimodo’s love for Esmerelda, but there are others who are watching her closely and whose motives are far more sinister.

I am always reluctant to review books that are classics as everything that needs to be said about them has essentially already been said by others and probably much more eloquently than I will.

This book was a re-read for me. I read it about 20 years ago immediately prior to taking my children to see the Disney film at the cinema and I can remember feeling incredibly moved by the novel and the ending has stayed with me ever since.

At the time, I had not seen the original film which was made in 1939. If you have watched either of these films it is essential to get those images out of your head prior to reading this. At no point does Quasimodo shout “The bells, the bells made me deaf” as depicted by Charles Laughton in the 1939 version of the film.

Neither can I begin to comprehend how the Disney Corporation took such a dark story and turned it into something suitable for children (although I must confess that I do love the film and have happy memories of watching this with my children.) However, in the book, Esmerelda is a 15 year old girl who is being lusted after and pursued by a priest. It was a huge undertaking to take this premise and turn it into something Disneyesque suitable for children. They were successful in this but largely at the expense of the essence of the story.

I have been afraid of re-reading this book because I loved it so much on my first reading and I was worried that my illusions would be shattered if I read it with the addition of two decades of life experience behind me. I recently explained this to my youngest son who went straight out, bought me a copy of the book and told me to read it again and see whether I felt the same.

I had forgotten how descriptive the book is. There are times where there are just pages and pages of descriptive prose that does get rather tiresome. The whole first section of the novel is devoted to describing the history of Paris. The language is incredibly dated too, bearing in mind that the story is set in 14th century France, but I soon found that I not only adapted to this old-fashioned narrative but actually rather enjoyed it.

Work through those two things and it leaves an amazingly enthralling story which I enjoyed every bit as much as my first reading. It was an immersion into the grown up world of fairy tales; Beauty and the Beast set in 14th century Paris.

It was also humorous in parts, hauntingly atmospheric, the characters vivid and unforgettable. It also considers themes still relevant today. The book deals with love in its many forms, corruption and inequality. My conclusion is that it is not an easy read but well worth making the effort and persevering with.

Will I ever read it again? Give me another 20 years and I probably will.

ISBN:  978 1853260681

Publisher: Wordsworth Editions

Price: £1.99
Total saving so far: £373.74

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