A few weeks ago a friend leant me a copy of Jean Rhys’ ‘Voyage in the Dark’.
It’s a slim volume; only 159 pages. The cover is visually appealing (and I am a bit of a culprit for ‘reading a book by its cover’…), but I wasn’t sure if I was really going to like it.
Rewind to a few years ago; another friend had waxed lyrical about ‘Wide Sargasso Sea’, also by Jean Rhys, which I enthusiastically read but just couldn’t engage with. At all.
I mean I read the words, but I just couldn’t get on board with the story. I wasn’t taking it in. The words hovered at the surface of my short-term consciousness as if I was reading on autopilot (I was), and after a few pages, I had no better idea of what was going on. I got to the end, and I still didn’t know the story that had taken place on the pages in front of me. I didn’t even take from it a lasting impression of textures, colours, atmosphere.
Maybe I was tired, stressed; not quite in the zone for that book at that time? Maybe it’s because Jane Eyre isn’t an all-time favourite so I had no buy-in to the back story of the ‘crazy lady in the attic’? Either way I wasn’t longing to read more of the same. End of.
Until Voyage in the Dark came my way a few weeks ago. I was skeptical. I read the back. I like a recommendation and I like being exposed to new and exciting things that I wouldn’t necessarily choose for myself. So I started reading.
‘He kissed me again, and his mouth was hard, and I remembered him smelling the glass of wine and I couldn’t think of anything but that, and I hated him.’
Wow. From the first few pages I was gripped by the sheer simplicity of the sentences and structure, but how it beguiles and beckons and teases and expresses so much in very vivid, striking prose. I cared about the characters. In fact, I felt like I was Anna.
‘This is a beginning. Out of this warm room that smells of fur I’ll go to all the lovely places I’ve ever dreamt of. This is the beginning.’
I savoured the words, careering towards the inevitable denouement but hoping, oh hoping, that Anna was right: ‘It can’t be that, it can’t be that. Didn’t I always…’
‘…Never mind, you’re a good little cow; you’ll be all right,’
Once my train arrives at the station and everyone gets up and files off and I am still sitting there, clinging to the wonderfully succinct sentences and paragraphs and chapters and the wonderful intoxicating journey that Jean has me caught up in. This is a special book, and a special author.
Of course, as soon as a thing has happened it isn’t fantastic any longer, it’s inevitable. The inevitable is what you’re doing or have done. The fantastic is simply what you didn’t do.
In the version I read there was an introduction by Carole Angier, Jean’s subsequent biographer. Though I prefer to dive right into a book and find the details of the author’s life more poignant once I have actually read their work, I was sad to learn that success came ‘too late’ for Jean Rhys. I had known before, briefly, of the late recognition of her work, and apparently, Voyage in the Dark is said to be her most successful book. But too late for Jean, coming as it did when she was in her late seventies.
The piano began to play, sickly-sweet. Never again, never, not ever, never.
Through caverns measureless to man down to a sunless sea…’ (I love Coleridge)
When I search for her in Google, her young face pops up in black and white. She was beautiful in a subtle way, and I felt the sorrow in her eyes, from reading her words, and knowing how much of her writing was autobiographical. How sad that much of her life was spent on the ugly side, in dependency – to men, and to alcohol – and in prostitution. I think it is true that our experiences make us who we are, and Jean certainly had a unique childhood growing up in Dominica.
‘I don’t want to sell my coat…’
‘I hate men,’ Ethel said. ”Men are devils, aren’t they?’
Jean Rhys, rest in peace. And know that your work keeps on giving. Although it was applauded and acclaimed too late for you to enjoy its success and fortune, be glad that you have left a rich written legacy for others to discover and devour.