Wide Sargasso Sea

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Wide Sargasso Sea- Jean Rhys

As fans of Jane Eyre will probably know, Wide Sargasso Sea is a prequel- or an implied prequel, at least- to Brontë’s classic love story, detailing the life of Bertha Antoinetta Mason (Rochester’s ‘mad woman in the attic’ first wife)  before and during the early days of her marriage to Rochester. It’s a novel which has always divided opinion, with one friend of mine telling me it was ‘bitter, feminist crap’ and others proclaiming its brilliance. I’ll admit I didn’t expect to like this novel, partly because I’m a Jane Eyre lover and I’m also not a big fan of colonial and postcolonial fiction. However, it turned out to be a very interesting read…

The novel is set a short while after the Abolition of Slavery in 1834. Antoinette Cosway is the daughter of a former slave owner and along with her disabled brother and widowed mother, has been somewhat abandoned in the Caribbean. The family does not fit in with the local black population, nor the new class of white immigrants settling in the Caribbean. There is a profound sense of isolation throughout the novel; indeed, the first line reads “They say that when trouble comes close ranks, so the white people did. But we were not in their ranks“. Although the peculiar societal position of the Cosway family is crucial to the story and creates the unique perspective of slaveowners as a victimised minority, it did irritate me that Rhys changed the time frame of the story to achieve this effect. Were she to have stuck to the time frame of Jane Eyre, Antoinette’s childhood would have taken place in the 1820s when slavery was still practised and her family would have been affluent, as well as belonging to the ruling class of Jamaica. Although Rhys’ changing of the time frame allows her to explore a fascinating transitional period in history, and one that has seldom been explored by other writers, it seems almost as though she’s done it to make Antoinette a victim from the off, and thus rendering Rochester more of a villain- essentially, being extra anti-establishment, just for the sake of it. It also irritated me that his infidelity was made much of, whereas hers was kept very quiet until the end, despite it being much more frequent.

However, although Rhys does present Rochester as the ‘bad guy’ in much of the novel, he is a victim too, of scheming on the part of his father and brother. Due to cultural influences and vicious rumours, he genuinely believes that his wife is his enemy. Rhys tells much of the story from Rochester’s perspective and so we are able to understand and sympathise with him, even if we know him to be mistaken. In the end, Antoinette and Rochester are both victims, of society and of each other.

Not only this, the novel helps the reader see Bertha Mason as something other than the symbol she is in Jane Eyre. She becomes a character with thoughts, feelings and fears, and Rhys’ beautiful, yet haunting, writing style draws us into the dark centre of her psyche as she becomes increasingly isolated and out-of-touch with reality. In fact, Rhys’ writing style is one of the best things about this novel, and makes it an absolute pleasure to read. It’s very ambiguous and full of hints and shadows rather concrete facts, which achieves a very appropriately disconcerting effect, since the novel deals with a mental breakdown. But Rhys’ prose isn’t the only thing that haunts the novel; Wide Sargasso Sea is haunted by the ghost of Bertha Mason, since as soon as you pick up the novel, you know it can only end in one way…

Wide Sargasso Sea is, in short, a fantastic novel. Its disturbing power borders on hypnotic, meaning that it won’t take you long to read it. You can enjoy it whether you’ve read Jane Eyre or not, and I suspect that the novel you read first probably impacts your perception of the other. Jean Rhys has created a masterpiece which is as beautiful, abstruse and troubled as the Caribbean itself.

Have YOU read Wide Sargasso Sea? How well do you think it interacted with Jane Eyre? It’s one of those novels I could discuss for hours and I’d really love to know what you think, so please please leave me a comment!

Things Fall Apart

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Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe

Before I get into reviewing, I’d like to start with an apology. I know I’ve been quiet for the past few weeks and it’s due to a combination of going back to college (well, it’s mainly just going back to college, it’s pretty full-on this year), setting up societies and trying to work in some semblance of a social life. Consequently, there hasn’t been much time for blogging or reading. I’M SORRY. I know I should have prioritised my blog more, the time just slipped away without me realising!

So, into the review. I had to read Things Fall Apart for my English lit coursework. It was on my to-read list and it has also been named one of the 100 best books of all time on the World Library List. Since I had to read it for English, I’ve done some research on its background, as well as the life of the author and it’s pretty interesting stuff. It has been suggested that the author deserves the Nobel Prize for Literature but has never won it due to his criticism of Joseph Conrad. I also discovered that Achebe chose to write in English rather than his native Igbo so that his books could be read in colonising countries, which would allow the colonisers to understand the effects of their actions. This makes sense once you read the book; it is not necessarily an outright attack on colonisation, but is rather an exploration of the consequences of what happens when one culture forces itself upon another. No religion is shown to be “right” or “wrong”; Achebe presents the idea that what works in one culture is an abomination in another, similar to the idea expressed in The Poisonwood Bible

The book is the story of Okonkwo, a great warrior who has already attained three of the four available titles in the clan. Although in Okonkwo’s society a man is not judged by his father, he is terribly ashamed of his father’s laziness and cowardice and spends his entire life trying to prove himself to be the opposite. He represses any emotion that could be perceived as ‘weak’ of ‘effeminate’, including fondness for his own children. Although he is trying to strive in a tribe that has very masculine values, he goes too far, beating his wife during the week of peace and killing the boy who calls him ‘father’. He is eventually exiled for accidentally killing a man and when he returns, the white man has brought Christianity to his home. At first, the leader of the church is a reasonable man who listens to the villages and takes the time to discover that what the Africans believe is not so essentially different to that of Christianity, but after he falls ill he is replaced by a man intent on forcing Christianity down the throats of the tribesmen. The villagers at first begin to fight back but they are not truly prepared to go to war with the white men and, realising this, Okonkwo commits suicide, thus disgracing himself and going against one of the most basic rules of the tribe. 

The simple style of this book makes it very easy to read, unlike Heart of Darkness with its complicated syntax. However, this makes it seem as though it is a simple book, which it is not. It is, in fact, a very powerful work of fiction which explores ethics, religion, relationships and history, and the connections between these. For example, when Ekwefi breaks the rules and follows the priestess to ensure her daughter’s safety the question is begged; what is stronger, faith or the bond between a mother and her child?

Things Fall Apart is a book which throws you into a completely different culture and puts you on the opposite side of colonisation. You don’t find yourself thinking that the traditions of the tribe are “weird”; instead they are rich and interesting and allow you to glimpse a slice of another culture and also another time period. I also found myself absolutely outraged on behalf of the tribesmen at the Western intrusion into their life, and the arrogance of their certainty that their ways were “right” and the ways of the Igbo were “wrong”. 

I would recommend this book to anyone with an interest in history or culture, but it’s not one for those who are into romance or tear-jerkers. Although sad events occur in the book, I never found myself particularly attached to any one character and there wasn’t a romantic element to the story. Neither was it particularly gripping- I didn’t find myself desperate to find out what happened next. I wouldn’t say it was one of the best books I’ve ever read, but I can appreciate the considerable skill exhibited by Achebe. 

Have YOU read Things Fall Apart? What did you think of it? Please let me know! (Not only am I interested, it might be helpful for my English coursework!) 

 

 

 

 

The Poisonwood Bible

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This book was recommended to me by my English teacher, to further my knowledge of postcolonial literature and is one of the novels I read whilst on holiday. It took me a few days as it’s almost six hundred pages long and not always the easiest of reads, but nevertheless it’s a very interesting book.

The Poisonwood Bible is the story of the Price family who go to the Congo as missionaries in the year 1959. Even without the problems provided by their mission, the family has it’s problems. The father, Nathan, is a misogynistic evangelical Baptist minister who seems incapable of affection and his long-suffering wife, Orleanna, feels she is no longer needed by most of her children. The eldest daughter, Rachel, is horribly shallow and prizes her mirror above all else. The twins, Adah and Leah, aren’t exactly close- Leah is prone to dogmatism whilst Adah is highly cynical, especially with regards to religion. There is also a lot of guilt and resentment between them, since Adah is hemiplegic and mostly refuses to talk. Leah also idolizes her father and receives very little affection in return; only scorn from her sisters. As for the youngest, Ruth May, she is Orleanna’s favourite and when Orleanna chooses to save her over Adah, Adah’s relationship with her mother is thrown into doubt. Yet what family is perfect? This is one of the things I liked best about the novel; it captured the fractures and imperfections of this family in a very realistic manner- I wouldn’t have been surprised if the Prices were based on a real family.

At the centre of the Price family, at least at first, is Christianity. At the start of the book it is their crux, but by the end all of them have questioned their faith, except for Nathan and it seems that his unwillingness to do so is his downfall. He thinks that what works for America will work for the Congo too and that he can just enforce his views on a society. Nathan seems to see the world in black and white, but the Congo is a grey area. What we see as a problem, such as child mortality, might be seen differently in another part of the world. This was my favourite part of the book; it stressed the importance of understanding and respecting other cultures, rather trying to change them and seeing your own culture as “right” and every other culture as “wrong”.

Whilst this book is a fantastic achievement and very skillfully written, it didn’t quite grip me somehow. It’s very slow moving at first and there are many chapters in which not a lot happens, but I suppose that reflects everyday life- every day is not an adventure, even in the Congo. The book focuses instead on the gradual change of the Price family and this adds a touch of credibility.

Whilst this is an incredibly well-written book, for me it just wasn’t overly enjoyable. It was certainly thought provoking and I can’t deny that it took a very talented writer to produce it, but I don’t think I’d read it again.

Have YOU read The Poisonwood Bible? What did you think? Please let me know!