Millie Bobby Brown book: Nineteen Steps trips up portraying tragedy – review

Millie Bobby Brown book: Nineteen Steps trips up portraying tragedy – review

by Suswati Basu
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My deep admiration for actress Millie Bobby Brown makes it difficult for me to admit this, but I must. Her debut novel “Nineteen Steps” falls short of the masterpiece everyone anticipated, leaving me somewhat disappointed. Yet, in the spirit of fairness, I must commend the Stranger Things star for her touching tribute to her grandmother, Nanny Ruth, as the book vividly resurrects a chilling chapter from history – the often-overlooked tale of the Bethnal Green crush.

Rating: 2.5 out of 5.
Millie Bobby Brown book Nineteen Steps in front of A History of Modern Britain by Andrew Marr and Auschwitz: A History by Sybille Steinbacher
Millie Bobby Brown book Nineteen Steps. Credit: Suswati Basu.

I’m of course being sardonic. In spite of my critique, it’s undeniable that Brown’s decision to pen (with help) this deeply personal narrative at the age of 19 represents a bold move, one that many individuals, even those considerably older, might shy away from attempting.

Warning: This article contains spoilers.

What is book by Millie Bobby Brown about?

The debut book by Millie Bobby Brown, “Nineteen Steps,” delves into historical fiction, immersing readers in the World War II era of London. The story draws inspiration from the tragic Bethnal Green Tube disaster of 1943, which claimed an inordinate amount of lives. The book is said to be based on the real-life experiences of Brown’s grandmother, who survived the incident – though it is unclear how much of it is her actual story as it is not explicitly mentioned in the novel.

Book by Millie Bobby Brown is said to be based on her grandma.

The story follows the life of Nellie Morris as she grapples with the challenges of wartime existence—air raids, rationing, and the heartache of losing loved ones. Amidst the turmoil, Nellie becomes entangled in a love triangle, torn between Billy, her childhood sweetheart, and Ray, an American airman stationed nearby.

“Nineteen Steps” weaves a tale of love, resilience, and the indomitable human spirit during the bleakest moments in history. Brown’s motivation for writing the book lies in honouring her family’s heritage and sharing an untold story. She aspires to kindle readers’ curiosity about World War II and the profound sacrifices of that era.

What caused the Bethnal Green tube disaster?

The Bethnal Green tube station disaster, colloquially known as the “Bethnal Green crush,” stands as a grim testament to the perils faced by Londoners during World War II. On the fateful evening of March 3, 1943, against the backdrop of an air raid alert, a surging throng of individuals sought refuge within the confines of the Bethnal Green Underground station, hastily repurposed as an air-raid shelter.

Millie Bobby Brown book Nineteen Steps is based on the Bethnal Green tube disaster
Millie Bobby Brown book Nineteen Steps is based on the Bethnal Green tube disaster. Credit: srfurley.

In the chaos that ensued, panic and overcrowding conspired to yield a nightmarish catastrophe at the station’s entrance staircase. The unforgiving toll of this harrowing incident bore witness to the brutality of war, claiming the lives of 173 individuals, spanning men, women, and children, while leaving countless others wounded. It was one of the deadliest civilian disasters of World War II in Britain.

The London Underground As Air Raid Shelter, London, England, 1940. Millie Bobby Brown book Nineteen Steps looks into air raid shelter disaster
People sheltering from air raids line the platform and tracks at Aldwych Underground Station in London. A row of coats can be seen hanging on the wall. Credit: Imperial War Museum.

Several factors contributed to this horrific disaster, including the blackout conditions, lack of proper lighting, the absence of a handrail on the staircase, and the fact that many of those seeking shelter were unfamiliar with the station’s layout. This tragic event prompted changes in how public shelters were managed and led to safety improvements to prevent similar incidents in the future.

The Bethnal Green tube station disaster remains a sombre reminder of the challenges and risks faced by civilians during wartime, even when seeking safety in shelters.

Is Nineteen Steps ghostwritten?

With the rumour mill afoot, it is true that MBB did not fly solo in writing this book. Some say ghostwriter Kathleen McGurl’s name should have also appeared on the front of the book cover. Explaining the process, McGurl wrote in a blog post on her site that this was a “different kind of writing project,” having penned 14 other works previously. The author called it a collaboration with a celebrity. She added she had been sent lots of research by Brown and her family, as well as a “couple of Zoom calls”.

“I knuckled down and wrote the first draft, while Millie continued sending more ideas via WhatsApp. The book went through several drafts since then, as we refined the story.”

Kathleen McGurl

She was seen pictured with Brown at the official book launch this week, in which the Enola Holmes actress said “a HUGE thank you to my collaborator @kathleenmcgurl – I couldn’t have done this without you!”

When romance and historical non/fiction clash

Much like many others, it was undeniably heartbreaking to read about such an avoidable tragedy from the perspective of a character inspired by her relative. However, there were instances—reminiscent in the movie Titanic when Jack and Rose engage in frivolous antics amid the terrifying sinking—where the romance provoked a sense of scepticism and literally made my eyes roll. As a cynical journalist who spent years evading the genre and its accompanying clichés, the narrative should be sufficiently compelling without the intrusion of a love triangle that threatens to undermine it.

Read: The Fraud by Zadie Smith: are we all just imposters? – review

Regrettably, this is where the book succumbed to a common pitfall of assuming that the historical event alone isn’t sufficient. To begin with, it should be noted that this isn’t a young adult novel, so it’s essential to treat the reader as a grown-up by not shrinking from presenting the unvarnished reality. Moreover, if the purported love triangle did indeed occur, it would be logical to allude to it in an epilogue or, at the very least, in the acknowledgments. Instead, we are left with the impression that including this plotline might be borderline patronising if it lacks any factual basis.

In classic Bollywood fashion, the romantic interest makes a comeback just as the noble sidekick is prepared to gracefully yield his place for the woman he deeply loves. I could hear the triumphant fanfare in my head.

“”Nellie, my love, my darling. I couldn’t save Flo. But I can save you, from a lifetime of regret. You’ve lost so much. I can’t, I won’t take this second chance from you. We won’t get married. I know how you feel for Ray, and all I want is for you to be happy. As happy as it’s possible to be. So I’m … setting you free.””

‘Billy,’ Nineteen Steps by Millie Bobby Brown

As the story unfolds, Nellie, the main character, experiences the heart-wrenching losses of her dear father, Charlie, and her younger sister, Flo. Interestingly, it seems that losing her apparent love interest (or so it seems), Ray, is an even more profound blow to her, despite her relatively short acquaintance with him, perhaps spanning only a few months. Moreover, in the book’s concluding chapters, it shifts its focus from the backdrop of death and destruction of World War II, to a random wedding celebration, in some strange tonal shift. In this regard, the novel occasionally appears somewhat insensitive, which conveniently leads me to the prose itself.

The prose is prosaic

This somewhat brings to mind my experience reading “Spare” by Prince Harry, who, like Brown, enlisted a ghostwriter for his book. It’s possible that this sense of detachment in the material stems from not having a personal investment in the writing process. In Brown’s case, the narrative is also somewhat removed from her own experiences given that she heard these stories as a secondhand source.

A noticeable contrast arises when reading Pamela Anderson’s memoir, “Love, Pamela,” where she asserts to have penned it herself. This distinction becomes apparent in the inclusion of personal musings presented in the form of poetry, highlighting the limitations often found in ghostwritten books. Consequently, the prose tends to feature concise sentences with rather bland descriptions, and much of the writing comes across as two-dimensional and unimaginative.

“The days were getting longer, spring was around the corner and soon the trees would be in leaf and the flowers blooming in the parks.”

From “looking starry-eyed”, “heart swelled with pride”, and just generally, ‘water is wet’ descriptions, historical fiction only truly shines when it delves into a captivating era with a masterful blend of poetic storytelling and a fresh, unique perspective. In this case, the lacklustre composition fails to meet these expectations.

Character development is non-existent

The novel is entirely narrated from Nellie’s perspective, yet her character remains inert. There are no concrete descriptions of her appearance, leaving readers to conjure her image solely from their imagination. This absence of a visual portrayal extends to the other characters as well. Nellie is revealed to work at the local council’s office and harbour a strong protectiveness for her younger sister Flo, but little else about her is disclosed. Similarly, details about Ray, her American soldier love interest, and Billy, who admires her, has dimples, and struggles with asthma, are scant. We know even less about her mother Em and brother George.

What leaves me deeply unsatisfied is the lack of character development. In any tale, we seek to become emotionally invested, to cheer for the characters as they navigate their journey. While Nellie’s tragedy naturally elicits sympathy, we yearn for a deeper understanding of her inner world. The characters of Ray and Billy are so thinly drawn that their names could be swapped without notice. This brings to mind the exquisite character descriptions found in Jeffrey Eugenides’ “The Marriage Plot.” While not everyone possesses Eugenides’ storytelling prowess, it underscores the significance of grasping the subtle nuances of a character through just a few defining traits.

“Phyllida’s hair was where her power resided. It was expensively set into a smooth dome, like a band shell for the presentation of that long-running act, her face.”

Jeffrey Eugenides, The Marriage Plot

Effective character development is essential in historical fiction, serving as a linchpin in constructing an engaging and authentic narrative. This genre, firmly anchored within a distinct historical backdrop, demands characters that seamlessly blend into their context. To fully immerse the reader in the story, a profound comprehension of the characters’ motivations and behaviours is imperative. This engenders a relatable connection with individuals who appear genuine and multifaceted, simultaneously enriching readers with valuable historical insights. In essence, it not only captivates but also educates, rendering the story both compelling and credible.

The pain of predictability

As many have pointed out, the predictability of the story is evident from a mile away, and as a result, it doesn’t venture into new territory in terms of storytelling. While I commend Brown for bringing this particular moment in history to light, I also look forward to the possibility of more literary interpretations of this event in the future.

“Nineteen Steps” is a well-intentioned novel with an important story to tell. However, it has its flaws. The family dynamics, including the relationship between a daughter, her siblings, and parents, could have been enough to showcase the themes of love and resilience without the inclusion of an external love story. Nevertheless, if Nanny Ruth’s account is accurate, it stands as a remarkable testament to her courage and fortitude. In any case, Millie Bobby Brown’s decision to shed light on this tragic moment in history is laudable.

(Millie, if you ever read this, I’m sorry and I think you’re fabulous.)

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