Title: Wide Sargasso Sea
Author: Jean Rhys
Genre: Modern Classic
Rating: 2 of 5
Having just finished Jane Eyre, I decided to read the spinoff/prequel (sometimes considered to be a modern classic in its own right): Wide Sargasso Sea. I’m not going to give away too many plot points from the book, but the whole thing turns on a major plot point in Jane Eyre, so if you aren’t acquainted with Jane Eyre and want to someday read it without knowing the deep dark revelation that occurs halfway through the book, beware:
And if you didn’t just read that in River Song’s voice you need to go track down all the (new/revival) Doctor Who seasons that are available on DVD and watch them right now…you’re missing out on a great show.
And now that you’ve had ample opportunity to look away if you want to avoid the big Jane Eyre spoiler… This book is about Rochester’s first wife – the crazy one that is locked in the attic, occasionally roams the house at night, and is the cause of Rochester’s disillusionment. In Jane Eyre we only get Rochester’s side of the story as to where she came from, how he was tricked into marrying her, and her subsequent descent into debauchery and madness. Jean Rhys’s book purports to fill in the details of what really happened.
Rhys didn’t want to add to the story so much as subvert it. Her story is strongly post-colonial as it is set against the backdrop of simmering anger, hatred, and racism following the emancipation of British slaves in the West Indies. Hardly anyone in the story is likeable, and Rochester (who is never named, though it’s clearly him) is probably the most detestable of the lot. Men in general are portrayed as using women as pawns or playthings, discarding them when they become inconvenient, and then blaming them for their own misery.
The writing is mostly a somewhat fractured stream of consciousness style that shifts its point of view between Rochester and “Bertha.” It kind of works with the idea of madness/disorientation/trauma that runs throughout the book. I enjoy books with a narrator of questionable reliability, but found this one so chaotic that it was hard to follow at times
Overall: this is only worth reading if you are really into stream-of-consciousness writing and seeing Rochester recast as an unforgivable cad.