Highly Commended in the Forward Prizes
The Magnetic Diaries is simultaneously a narrative in poems, a critical appreciation and a book of literary hide and seek. Taking the characters and initial storyline of Gustave Flaubert’s nineteenth century masterpiece Madame Bovary, Sarah James re-envisages them in a modern twenty-first century English setting. The contemporary heroine, Emma Bailey, battles with similar Romantic idealism, illusions about love, a stifling middle-class lifestyle, boredom and depression. But will modern treatment save her and her marriage?
Flaubert’s original tale is reworked and extended through moving lyrical fragments and beautifully crafted poems reconstructed by fictional researchers from Emma’s diary and treatment notes. This book does not shy away from the raw aspects of severe depression or the troubled heroine’s behaviour. Instead, introspection and the powerful rhythms of poetry reveal that beauty and tenderness can exist even in pain.
This narrative also contains a multi-media element. QR codes in the text allow readers to access online audio, pictures and extra poems, which are not essential to the main text but add a supplementary level to the reading experience.
The Magnetic Diaries was highly commended in the Forward Prizes and Sarah’s one-act poetry-play version of the collection was selected for and performed at the 2015 Write On Festival at Hereford’s The Courtyard theatre.
“It’s so refreshing to read a collection with this kind of literary ambition, at once a call and response, written in the margins, superimposed across the text, invisibly escorted through M Bovary, Sarah James’ The Magnetic Diaries is a coruscating, intertextual journey. And while the wit is just as caustic, the poet navigates the choppy waters of mental health, modern marriage and parenthood towards a genuine, hard-won compassion, which outstrips the original in its humanity. This is achieved through snappy, unsentimental poems with an experimental, Concrete edge, insightful and troubling in their depiction of the domestic and the cosmic. Highly recommended.”
- Luke Kennard
“The Magnetic Diaries is not, strictly, a retelling of Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, rather these are the poems that the protagonist, Emma, might have written if she had been living in the UK in the early years of the 21st century, subject to psychiatric investigation and treatment unknown to her 19th century predecessor. Sarah James brings her immense versatility as a poet to work that is sometimes lyrical, sometimes experimental, sometimes both, and often challenging, in a sequence that rewards the reader’s perseverance. Like Julian Barnes’ Flaubert’s Parrot, The Magnetic Diaries offers a new experience of the classic work, which nevertheless does not depend on the reader being acquainted with the original.”
- Jacqui Rowe
“There are some wonderful individual lines of poetry in this book. From ‘Friday, 4th October (Latent): ‘A stranger’s breath greases my neck’; from ‘Monday, 4th November (Unwanted Presents): ‘ice winds sting, my throat is grated beetroot’ and from ‘Tuesday, 1st October (vases I have known): ‘those cracked egg shells: cress/ pushing up from the brown spit/ embedded in their husks’.”
“Overall, this is a solid sequence that engages the reader throughout. A useful addition to the Bovary experience and is rewarding in its scope and inventiveness. Recommended.”
- Andrew Taylor, The Journal, Jan 2016
“The Magnetic Diaries is a sensitive reworking and beautifully rendered writing back, as well as a lyrical and experimental response to Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, a book that still has the power to disrupt widely recognisable norms, like dysfunctional relationships and the boredom of the everyday. Sarah James modernises the novel, releasing it from its nineteenth century binding, and gives it freedom to move in the contemporary. Somehow, the way a novel like Madame Bovary can dance between you and the page is captured perfectly…Sarah James contextualises Emma in the twenty-first century in a way that breathes life into the nineteenth-century cadaver…Emma is a poet, as well as a reader, and her bouts of fancy and caprice are transformed into writing poems that are intelligent and expressive…”
- Sarah Cave, Stride, Feb 2016.
“…These poems that Emma might have written had she been living in this country, now, are haunted by lyrical anguish…This is a powerful and disturbing sequence of poems and I have no hesitation recommending it in the strongest terms.”
- Ian Brinton, Tears in the Fence