Caryl Philips tells the story of Ella Gwendolyn Rees Williams; a girl born in the British colony of Dominica at the height of the Empire who grows up to become Jean Rhys, the mid-century Modernist writer who penned Wide Sargasso Sea. Philips’s novel tells the fictionalised story of Jean Rhys’s life prior to the success of the Jane Eyre prequel, building up to an anxiously anticipated return voyage to her birthplace.
Perhaps, my husband, if I show you the West Indies, then you will finally come to understand that I am not of your world.
I’ll preface this review by saying that I read this over the course of a month, rather than the usual three or four days that it would normally take me to read a book this length. This was not due to the novel itself, but probably made it difficult for me to full ‘get into’ the book.
That said, I also suspect this had something to do with my expecting something that this book was not. For a novel about a novelist, it almost completely ignores Jean Rhys’s writing, focusing instead on her troubled relationships with men and her equally complicated relationships with places; her home country of Dominica and England, where she spent most of her life. I love Jean Rhys’s work, she’s one of my favourite authors, and I would’ve loved to have read a story that included her tumultuous writing career, rather than just the fractured love affairs in her life.
The novel feels like it’s trying to mirror Rhys’s own writing style, but I couldn’t connect with her voice when written by Philips. True, Rhys’s work is characteristically distant and somewhat cold, but for her short novellas with often nameless protagonists, it works. When it comes to a 300+ page novel that spans decades, this approach makes the reading hard going.
I think my differing and perhaps too high expectations coupled with my attachment to Rhys and her work meant that I struggled to truly enjoy reading this. Had I gone into this book with no knowledge of Jean Rhys or if Philips hadn’t chosen a real person to place at the centre of this fictional narrative at all, I may have enjoyed the novel more for what it is, which is a well-written and melancholic look at a woman struggling to find a place, or a person, that feels like home.
Rating: 3 stars