Monday, 20 June 2011

Engulfed in a Sea and Attic

When it comes to literature, I am not usually particularly keen on spin-off books or novels based on classic characters. When I first read Jane Austen as an 11 year old, I was so captivated by the sparkling characters in Pride & Prejudice, so desperate to be part of their lives and learn more, I read a 'sequel' written by a modern writer. It was based on Elizabeth Bennett's married life with Darcy. It was one of the worst pieces of writing I had ever read, even worse than the deliciously awful Point Horror books I use to devour as a sort of pot noodle literature alongside the gourmet Austen.

It was like a bad Hollywood sequel where the actors couldn't act, the director couldn't direct and script was was written with invisible ink on thin air.

So it was with trepidation that I began reading 'Wide Sargasso Sea'. Recommended by a good friend of similar tastes and with whom I trusted with my cultural life, I took it up with the sort of enthusiasm of a child about to ride a bike without stabilisers. I wanted to, but it could hurt.

'Wide Sargasso Sea' was written by Jean Rhys in 1966. The book is regarded as a "parallel novel"; a prequel taking the characters from Charlotte Bronte's classic 'Jane Eyre'. A backdrop of the Caribbean, Rhys muses over the mysterious story before the infamous Rochester and "Bertha" end up in England (and thus, Bronte's novel).
'Jane Eyre' is one of my most sacred books; when I first started reading it for A Level English, I enjoyed it so much I stayed up the whole night to complete it in its entirety, returning to school the next day blurry eyed and accused of being out partying.

Reader, I was worried. Worried, essentially, that 'Wide Sargasso Sea' would fail me. That it would not do justice to the wonderful piece of literature it is affiliated to. I need not have worried. Rhys carves an intrinsically well drawn portrait of racial inequality, an oppressive world of harsh life and not belonging with a postmodern style of switching view point. The setting of the Caribbean is fresh; colloquialisms give the book an original take, and yet it is not a difficult read despite the tragically complex themes and psychological conundrums it deals with - mental health, the theme often tackled with either terror or simply ignored altogether in the hope it'll go away.

Some passages are so heartbreakingly beautiful, so melancholically poignant; you become just as engulfed as 'Bertha' herself. Rhys cleverly fills in gaps of fictional history and yet leaves us with even more question marks hanging solemnly and mystically, over the attic. A classic in itself.

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