Tuesday, September 24, 2019

Jean Rhys

Wide Sargasso Sea -- Jean Rhys's novel of the colonial West Indies -- is not a book I expected to read. But I did so last week and found myself largely confused. 

The first part of the novel is well done: Rhys highlights racial tensions stemming from slavery and its abolition; she's equally sensitive to violence, and the shadow it cast across the islands. These themes are extended in the second section of the novel, which focuses on the complex relationship between race and power. Rhys explores this complexity by way of the colonial superstructure as well as through tangled family histories. The third section of the novel, which felt most disjointed, attempts in some ways to bring these themes full circle: the violence which is realized in the first part, for instance, is hinted at again in the end -- as if violence bequeaths more of the same. 

The sense I had upon finishing Sargasso, though, was that it required an extension: the themes introduced warrant further exploration; the characters, despite their trauma, do not emerge in three dimensions. I suppose, in my reading, there was too much left unspoken by Rhys, too much that felt ephemeral, ethereal. Sargasso is best when most concrete; unfortunately, those moments of certainty paled in comparison to stretches of implication and innuendo. 

There is something happening here, I readily concede: I was just not convinced that the pieces, when taken together, amount to a coherent whole. Style is not enough to carry a novel to completion -- even the beauty of the language seeks to communicate profound themes. 

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