Monday, January 3, 2011

Book 43, Dominica: "Sleep It Off, Lady" by Jean Rhys

Do I know why the Singapore National Library has a first edition of Jean Rhys's last work before her death? No I do not.

But I'm glad all the same, because this is a lovely book - arguably more beautiful than her more famous novel Wide Sargasso Sea, which I only liked on a second read.

There's a distant, interior style, characteristic of an earlier, more genteel age - I kept thinking of Eudora Welty - and indeed, Rhys (it's pronounced Rees) began writing in Paris in the '20s, soaking up the culture of refined Modernism while never quite shedding her Caribbean roots and accent.

Another thing I love is how this series of fictions carries us through the line of Rhys's life, from her childhood in Dominica to her boarding school blues in rural England to her London musical-hall and Parisian demimondaine days, up till her senescence, retirement (and afterlife). The cover sleeve claims the stories are based on her own life, and indeed there are tales narrated in first person, and little mysterious details that cohere more with the randomness of true living than with the ideal contours of plot.

But the truth is, most of the female characters (often mildly to wildly neurotic) have names of their own: the molested Phoebe, the spiteful Daisie, the untouchable Margaret, the obsessive Audrey and the pathetic Miss Verney. So their lives are cut short as each story ends, and we're left with that beautiful sense of mystery as we move into another woman's life.

It's also pretty refreshing to see the tropics portrayed so coolly and dispassionately, by one for whom the experience of snowy England was far more bizarre than a land of rainforests and volcanoes. Sure, there's voodoo and murders and miscegenation, but that was part of the course of life as they viewed through the distant windows of childhood.

Quite different from most colonial narratives. She even makes fun of the exoticisation of the Indies in "The Insect World", which ends up comparing sandflies to London subway passengers in the war, to the ticking biological clock of a single woman in a city about to swallow her whole.

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Representative quote: Well there was one thing. Now she felt very wise, very grown-up, she could forget these childish worries. She could hardly believe that only a few weeks ago she, like all the others, had secretly made lists of her trousseau, decided on the names of her three children. Jack. Marcus. And Rose.

Now goodbye Marcus. Goodbye Rose. The prospect before her might be difficult and uncertain but it was far more exciting.

Next book: Frantz Fanon's "Black Skin, White Masks", from Martinique.

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