Review Blog

Mar 01 2016

Elephant man by Mariangela Di Fiore

cover image

Ill. by Hilde Hodnefjeld. Translated by Rosie Hedger. Allen and Unwin, 2016. ISBN 9781760292201
(Age: 7+) Highly recommended. Prejudice, Isolation, Disfigurement, Disease, Nineteenth century England. When I first saw this on the Allen and Unwin website, I grabbed my iPad to check on the story of this singular man, Joseph Merrick who died in 1890 so I was excited to receive the book for review. But nothing prepared me for this tale of isolation, of rejection, of disfigurement and finally of friendship. The bare facts on Wikipedia are embellished in this beautiful retelling, the author, Mariangela Di Fiore, telling us that she used the facts but added what she felt would have been Joseph's voice. She has successfully drawn an image of a man bereft of friends, abused, ignored, derided because of his deformities, but in her words, translated most effectively by Rosie Hedger, given a presence that cannot be ignored by the reader.
Born in 1863, his deformed body took some time to develop. His loving mother died when he was eleven, and his father remarried a woman who despised him. Forced to find work, he had problems as his ability to use his hands decreased, and eventually he was taken up by a character who ran a freak show, which toured the countryside exhibiting others with deformities: a bearded woman, a very thin man, a fat lady and so on. Nobody spoke to Joseph and daily his life became more secluded. He met a doctor who worked at the London Hospital, and he gave him his card. Later when Joseph was abandoned in Europe, the police found the card and contacted the doctor who took him in. He lived the rest of his life in the London hospital in his own rooms, a curiosity but treated with care and attention by the doctor and other visitors.
The beautiful writing develops an empathy between the plight of this young man and the reader, and the whole is consistently ablaze with incredible photographs, sepia images of Joseph, tickets and writings forming a strong feeling for nineteenth century England. This book will impel readers to rethink their attitudes to those they see and meet who look different, and leave behind a lasting impression of one man's story and his final acceptance.
Fran Knight

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