Book Review: Wide Sargasso Sea

WIDE SARGASSO SEAWide Sargasso Sea, by Jean Rhys. Available from Norton, and first published in 1966.

I read Wide Sargasso Sea, not just because it is considered a great book, but because I read Jane Eyre earlier this year and am currently reading through all the Bronte sisters’ writing. If you are not familiar with Wide Sargasso Sea, you might be wondering what a 1960s novel has to do with the Bronte sisters. It is, well… we might identify it these days as fan fiction. Of course, in the 60s, we didn’t quite have the proliferation of fan fiction that we have nowadays, but I like the idea that Rhys’s novel was taken seriously, because good–or even great–things can come from expanding on someone else’s ideas. I am not at all opposed to the idea of fan fiction, as long as privacy and property is not abused and ideas are held with respect. I mean, ideas have been shared and expanded on since the very earliest days of story.

Wide Sargasso Sea is the back-story of Antoinette (Bertha) Cosway, the crazy lady in the attic of Jane Eyre‘s Thornfield Hall. Ostensibly, it also gives some depth to Rochester and his secret past. The slim book covers from Antoinette’s traumatic childhood, through her marriage to the wealthy second son, Rochester, to their fated honeymoon deep in the wilderness of the Caribbean. It ends, briefly, in England, leading up to Antoinette’s death. It is an exploration of a developing insanity, trauma and disappointment, and the Colonial Caribbean’s people and fractured society.

NPG x13437; Jean Rhys by Paul JoyceI can agree with the back cover that Rhys sure can paint a setting, and her novel is an interesting and formidable “Jamaican Gothic.” What I’m not so sure about is its designation as a novel. A novel is defined by Dictionary.com as “a fictitious prose narrative of considerable length and complexity, portraying characters and usually presenting a sequential organization of action and scenes.” Fiction? Check. Sequential organization? Ehn. Complexity? Not really. Action? No.

I suppose what it comes down to is a lack of plot. I’m sure there are other examples of this type of writing, but what it reminds me of are those movies that take place in a single hotel room with only three characters. And, well, it might be hard to explain, but sometimes–when there was actually something going on–I wasn’t even sure what was going on. (More on that in a minute.) There is also little, if any, story arc. The few characters seem to just wander around in a haze of approximate time.

I’m actually quite a good reader. One of my strong points is picking up on subtleties. This book was so subtle, and unfortunately, I don’t mean that in a good way. Half the time, I wasn’t completely sure of what was happening. Heck, there were many times I didn’t even know which character was narrating. When I read, I like my perception of space and action to be crystal clear. (That doesn’t exclude a good mystery.) I hate it when I feel foggy, like my senses are dampened. That’s exactly how I felt the whole time I was reading this book: like I was in the fog, stifled, sleepy. Who is she talking about? Did that just happen? Is he really like that, or is it just the crazy talking? I’m sure some people are going to call it an atmospheric novel, like we are experiencing Bertha’s craziness in a very real place. but I don’t think I buy it.

It would be interesting to read some of her other books to see if she is capable of more clarity and this book was truly meant to be this way.

Of course, I am also annoyed by the portrayal of Rochester. Yes, we have only beforehand seen him through the eyes of his adoring Jane Eyre, but I didn’t feel like Rhys’s Rochester and Bronte’s Rochester were reconcilable. I didn’t recognize any of the same attributes between them. And many details of his first marriage and the Cosway family were changed to better fit Rhys’s feminist perspective.

And lastly, I didn’t find this book to be about “skewed… sexual relations.” It is, on some level, about sex (although some of it seems a bit forced). Actually, I take that back. It might be about skewed sexual relations, but it was so subtle that I missed it. I didn’t really get a sense of sexual strictures, or where they might be coming from. Maybe I’m just blinded by all the eerie trees and the glare of candlelight.

All in all, it was interesting. I think I agree with the critics who say you should read this book as completely separate from Jane Eyre. On its own, it’s much more interesting (and accurate). Also, if anyone ever tells you it’s a prequel to Eyre, they are sadly misled. A character exploration, maybe. But it is not a book either Bronte would write or is inevitable from the classic. But I’m not going to recommend it, unless you just really feel that post-modern Caribbean gothic is for you. And you don’t miss a plot. Or clarity. Three stars.

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