Thursday 8 March 2012

Book Review - Wide Sargasso Sea

I joined a new online book club last month and I am excited to have the encouragement to read more. Well, read EVEN more, because I do constantly carry books around with me already. But it is also nice to be able to talk about these books with like-minded people.

Forever Free Bookclub was founded by Fiona and Sydney and I really hope that it will take off! So far, we have seven members, but it would be awesome if some more people decided to join. The rules aren't very strict at all, each month members will suggest topics and then a poll will decide which one is the most popular. You are free to choose any book for reading, as long as it fits the brief.. For March, the winning topic was Favourite City, so I will be reading Stanley Park by Timothy Taylor, which is set in Vancouver. If you are a book lover and are interested in some communal reading, check the club out here.

To get things started, Sydney suggested Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys as our first title. I had heard of the book, but knew nothing about it, which sometimes is the best way to approach a piece of literature.

Wide Sargasso Sea is set in the Jamaica of the end of the 19th century and tells the back story of the mad wife in Jane Eyre. I have never read Jane Eyre, as my literay preferences are very much anchored in the 20th and 21st centuries, so for me the book was the story of Antoinette Cosway, a young white Jamaican woman who loses her home and family after the abolishment of slavery in the Carribean and is struggling to find her place on the island and in the hearts of the people she lives with.

The story begins with Antoinette recounting her childhood, living in a run-down plantation house with her  unstable mother, handicapped brother and stepfather. They share the house with a few loyal staff who continued their employment, but the family is broke, cannot keep up the estate and are met with hostility from their black neighbours. Antoinette feels at home on the island, she loves the lush nature and the black housemaid Christophine, but she can feel that the mood is changing around her. Antoinette's stepfather misjudges the situation and ignores his wife pleading with him to leave the island, so in the end they are forced to leave their home in a night full of tragic events. After this night, Antoinette's mother slips completely into mental illness and is no longer a part of Antoinette's life. Antoinette is being mocked by other children and becomes more and more introvert and solitary.

The second part of the book is told by Antoinette's new husband, the  young Englishman Rochester, who her stepfather practically pays out to take her off his hands. Rochester feels uneasy on the island, he abhors the weather, the culture and the local people. He hears rumours about Antoinette's mother, and is being warned about Antoinette suffering the same streak of madness. Instead of trusting his young wife, he gives in to his own doubts, rebuffing her affection and calling her by the name Bertha, possibly in an attempt to separate her from anything that indicates her Jamaican heritage and trying to cut her roots in order to be able to keep her under control. This attempt fails miserably when Antoinette turns to Christophine for a love potion, which fails to have the desired effect and only makes her more miserable and her husband more angry. By ways of self-fulfilling prophecy, Antoinette falls ill and, grief-stricken by her husband's rejection and bad memories of her own past, she indeed seems to have gone mad. Rochester finally decides to remove himself and his wife from the island, taking her back to England with him.

The book concludes from Antoinette's point of view. Her life in England is far from vibrant, and so is she. She is being kept in a room, watched over by a servant. She seems to have lost all her wit and has no sense of reality anymore. England does not seem like a tangible place to her, the only environment she knows comprises her room and her thoughts. She appears violent when visited by a relative, but cannot remember much of what she does. In the final few paragraphs, Antoinette tells the reader about a dream she keeps having, in which she escapes from her prison with dreadful consequences. The last scene describes her eventually waking up from this dream and acting upon it.

I was not quite sure what to make of Wide Sargasso Sea. I did not have the literary background to draw upon, so I took the characters as they were introduced to me. Essentially, I felt that the book was a story about oppression and the loss of identity, issues affecting the newly freed slaves, the white people who had lived in Jamaica for generations, and particularly Antoinette, who gets muddled up in two different cultures: feeling at home in Jamaica and believing in that way of life without being accepted by the black population, and trying to please her husband, who is attempting to force her to be more like the English women he is used to. As much as the story begins just after a successful freedom movement, it ends tragically, with its main character having been made a slave by misunderstandings and convention.

I did not really get emotionally close to any of the characters, it felt like the book was a bit puzzled together, and it was too short to form an attachment. I loved the description of the island itself, Rhys brings to life the abundant flora, the humid weather and the wilderness that seems to engulf the inhabitants. She weaves in stories of magic and the occult and the aversion of the cultured Western people to these kinds of practices. All in all, I thought that the novel was a good insight into a culture and a chapter of history that I knew nothing about and a reminder to keep an open mind and not to succumb to thoughts of prejudice and presumption.


© Text & Photos - Annika - All The Live Long Day (unless otherwise stated).

1 comment:

  1. I have thought about doing an online book club but I can barely keep up with the one I am in in Kingston! They are great for making you pick up books you normally may have skipped over


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