Cecily's book reviews

In general I've written reviews of every book I've read since I joined GoodReads (RIP) in May 08, along with one or two I read prior to that. More recent reviews tend to be longer (sometimes a tad too long?). I always carry a book, though I don't get as much time as I'd like to get engrossed - life is busy, but in a good way. Too many of my favourite authors died without writing enough! Apart from reading, and writing about reading, I enjoy Scrabble, good restaurants, woodland, and attending the theatre.
Wide Sargasso Sea - Jean Rhys I think the idea of one author piggy-backing, uninvited, on the characters and plot of another, is decidedly dodgy. However, this is widely regarded as a classic, and as I've read Jane Eyre many times (review here: http://www.goodreads.com/review/show/23324130), I thought I should finally try this prequel novella.

With such well-known books, I don't think it's a spoiler to say this imagines the story of the mad first wife in Rochester's attic: from her childhood in Jamaica, through to her marriage to Rochester, and a final epilogue that ties the two novels together, set in her attic at Thorfield. She travels from privilege to poverty and then to something else altogether.

NOTE: The book and this review use the N word occasionally (and appropriately, imo).

THEMES

The novel is set shortly after the emancipation of the plantation slaves, and Antoinette (aka Bertha in Jane Eyre) is the creole daughter of a former slave-owner.

Colour (in ever sense), and its contrasts and consequences, is at the heart of the novel, such as when "marooned" is used as a literal description and a metaphor, when Antoinette is looking at her mother.

The lush and multitudinous colours of the Carribean ooze from almost every page (see quotes at the end), but it's the colour of people that is more problematic.

Antoinette is mixed-race, but mostly accepted as white. Except that "accepted" isn't really true. When her widowed mother marries Mr Mason ("we ate English food now"), she notices how English he is, how un-English her mother is, and is less sure about herself. A black person describes her as a "white cockroach" and the English think of her as a "white nigger", but the blacks say that a "black nigger is better than white nigger". She muses, "I often wonder who I am and where is my country and where do I belong".

Colour determined the balance of power in colonies like Jamaica. Freeing the slaves changed that, but didn't entirely reverse it. With the story set at this turning point, it's not only Antoinette who is questioning her identity and her place in life, and to some extent, her personal change of circumstances, and Rochester's role in that, echo those of colonial people in general.

The rich colours sometimes have an unreality about them, and that seems prescient when dreams and drugs appear to muddle reality and unreality ("Only the magic and the dream are true — all the rest's a lie."). But they are transient, I think.

What of madness? I was expecting this book to be about what madness means, and the use and abuse of the label (especially by men, about women), and perhaps it is. Nevertheless, the overwhelming theme for me was colour.

NARRATORS - AND VICTIMS

The story is initially told by Antoinette. Later Rochester has a turn, and they swap a couple more times. In narration and dialogue, it wasn't always immediately clear who was talking. Not a huge problem, but a definite irritation.

More provocatively, if Antoinette really IS mad, how can she can tell her story so coherently, and if she ISN'T really mad...? In fact, Rochester's final passage is more muddled and rambling than any of Antoinette's.

Given this, and the way Rochester was tricked into the marriage (stated in Jane Eyre, but given detail here) and some of what happens in this book (rumours and lies to turn him against his wife, black magic, potions), one has to ask whether he is as much of a victim as Antoinette is.

LINKS WITH JANE EYRE

The heat of this book is in stark contrast with the cold that pervades much of Jane Eyre: here the passions are out in the open; in that, they are often suppressed.

Apart from the characters (though Rochester is never named), there are echoes of what is to come, perhaps designed to reinforce local ideas of of the power of obeah (magic): arson causes the family to flee their home; her mother apparently goes mad (from shock and grief); manic laughter; nightmares; a nearly cancelled wedding. The colour red is strong in both, in the literal sense (furnishings, flowers, fabrics, sky etc), and perhaps as a foreboding of fire of temper and of flames.

A more Biblical omen comes from several mentions of a cock crowing: just before the wedding; when collecting a black-magic potion ("That is for betrayal, but who is the traitor?"), and persistently when Rochester is planning taking Antoinette back to Spanish Town.

DANIEL COSWAY

Having opened by saying I dislike the idea of adding to another author's story, I was intrigued by Daniel to the extent that if there was a book about him, I might be tempted to pick it up: what sort of man is he really, and what are his motives?

Daniel claims to be one of many illegitimate half-siblings of Antoinette. Her (white) father was well-known for his philandering ways with local women, but the authenticity of Daniel's personal claim is disputed.

Baptiste tells Rochester that Daniel is "a very superior man, always reading the Bible" and, a few sentences later, "Daniel is a bad man and he will come here and make trouble". Is this poor editing, or deliberate and significant?

In his house, there is a framed text reading "Vengeance is mine" and Daniel is jealous of Sandi (the favoured illegitimate son, who passes as white, and is wealthy). His feelings about Antoinette are less clear, and his motives for telling Rochester about her mother's madness and other gossip are also uncertain: does he want to protect Antoinette in some way, is he hoping Rochester will be so incensed that he will wreak revenge on the Masons (and maybe gratitude on Daniel) and why, at the end of the scene, does he ask Rochester for hush money, when what he's said is apparently common knowledge?. Or maybe I'm reading too much into a minor scene?

QUOTES

* "The diamond-shaped pieces of silk melted one into the other, red, blue, purple, green, yellow, all one shimmering colour."

* An extraordinary oxymoron about her convent school: "my refuge, a place of sunshine and death".

* "light and dark, sunshine and shadow, Heaven and Hell"

* "Everything is too much... Too much blue, too much purple, too much green. The flowers too red, the mountains too high, the hills too near."

* A bathing pool has "secret loveliness. And it kept its secret... I want what it hides."

* "It was often raining when I woke during the night, a light capricious shower, dancing playful rain, or hushed, muted, growing louder, more persistent, more powerful, an inexorable sound. But always music, a music I had never heard before."

* "I hated her. For she belonged to the magic and the loveliness. She had left me thirsty and all my life would be thirst and longing for what I had lost before I found it."


RATING

I'm really torn between 3* and 4* - and I see the GR rating averages 3.51* On balance, I think 4* - but only just.

Currently reading

The Illustrated Gormenghast Trilogy
Sebastian Peake, China Miéville, Mervyn Peake
Gormenghast
Mervyn Peake