A lovely little creature but sly, spiteful, malignant perhaps, like much else in this place.

I’ve been meaning to re-read some of my favourite books but have gone down the book blogger’s rabbit hole where, frankly, I have so many unread books I don’t have time for the books I’ve already read. One of the lovely things about book group is sometimes you get the chance to re-read. And this month, it’s Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys chosen by Polly for our book group (do also check out Kim’s review).

It’s almost ten years since I read Wide Sargasso Sea. I remember the lushness of Jamaica and Antoinette’s crumbling life. But not much more. Rochester is a nameless, faceless man. That’s the thing about classics. You often find that on first reading, much of the story escapes you. It was the same with Jane Eyre which I read at school. I read a lot of classics back then but I suspect most of them were too complex for me to understand fully. So when I re-read Jane Eyre as an adult, I was shocked at the intensity of Jane’s feelings, the beauty of Charlotte Brontë’s prose, the immediacy of her situation. And like many others, I couldn’t shake the nagging, troublesome vision of the woman in the attic, Rochester’s first wife Bertha Mason. And when I learnt that Jean Rhys had written a prequel, I had to find out more.

Wide Sargasso Sea is the tale of Antoinette Cosway and how she became Bertha Mason. Born a creole in Jamaica in the early 19th century to a British slave owner for a father and a mother from Martinique driven by poverty and loss to madness, Antoinette is unable to shake off her familial legacy in a newly emancipated Jamaica. She is constantly questioning her identity and searching for her place in this world because, Rochester notes,

creole of pure English descent she may be, but they are not English or European either.

When her step-father arranges a mutually beneficial marriage (money for him, repectability for her), she is at first wary but soon falls in love with her new husband. But Rochester, young, naïve, superficial, initally dazzled by Antoinette and the strange magic Jamaica casts upon him, slowly grows suspicious of this wild, enchanting thing he has married. And when they return to one of her family homes for their honeymoon, the people and land from her past whisper ugly truths into his ears and he starts to believe he has been tricked. For a man like Rochester, who is all pride and who guards his love jealously, he can only torment his wife. As Antoinette desperately seeks to save their love, she turns to Christophine, her mother’s maid and the only person she feels is like family, begging her to make Rochester love her. But this only sparks the flames and drives Rochester to make a drastic decision.

Re-reading Wide Sargasso Sea, I am struck anew by the pathos and crushing unfairness of Antoinette’s plight. What I had remembered from my first reading (and from what I had read about others’ reactions to the book) was Antoinette’s knowingness and the way she manipulated Rochester. And yet, it’s her innocence and naïveté which left an impression this time. It is only Rochester’s bitter and twisted mind that cannot see past the rumours about Antoinette.

Like some have said, this isn’t the picture of Rochester you get from Jane Eyre. But then Rochester is a pretty horrible man at the start of the novel. So it’s interesting to see why he is that way. Rhys doesn’t name Rochester and he remains a nameless and faceless man; a jailer. I can’t say it’s Antoinette fault really, it seems Rochester has always been that way and his meeting with Antoinette somehow solidifies his persona.

I couldn’t help but compare this with Romesh Gunesekera’s recent novel, The Prisoner of Paradise, which was so light and different in tone even though it did cover some dark history. Rhys’ novel is more primal. The wild greenery, the colours, the sound adds to the gothic chill when you contrast it to the silence laden with secrets and sorrow in Antoinette’s family.

But however much colour and vibrancy Rhys injects into the story with her beautiful and stinging prose, Wide Sargasso Sea is a dark tale with an ever present sense of foreboding and claustrophobia. But this may be because we know of Antoinette’s inevitable fate which will naturally colour our reading.

Even though Jamaica is where Antoinette belongs, she is still ‘other’, separated by the colour of her skin and ancestry. But this is a different ‘other’ to what Rochester feels. Rochester is an alien in a bewitching land he does not understand and yet is seduced by it.

Everything is too much, I felt as I rode wearily after her. Too much blue, too much purple, too much green. The flowers too red, the mountains too high, the hills too near. And the woman is a stranger.

And this is while they are on their honeymoon.

The novel is divided into three parts. The first is Antoinette’s tale from her childhood until she meets Rochester. The second is told by Rochester interspersed with Antoinette’s explanations. And the third is told by Grace Poole and Antoinette when she is incarcerated in Thornfield. The structure of the novel in this way works brilliantly. If it had been one long continuous narrative, it would have become too heavy, too disturbing and I would have felt reluctant to continue, knowing what was going to happen.

The thing that I kept asking myself throughout was why was Rochester so angry, so hurtful? Why did he treat Antoinette in the way he did? Was it because he believed he had been tricked and made a fool of? If he didn’t love Antoinette, why didn’t he let her go? No one would know in England. But he didn’t want to release her. And he mentally abused her by changing her name to Bertha and erasing her identity, something that was so vital to her. It’s chilling.

In his introduction to her novel, Francis Wyndham aptly called Rhys one of ‘the purest writers of her time.’ Wide Sargasso Sea is a stripped down novel of raw emotion; superb, masterful, vivid and rich. It doesn’t answer all your questions but it does leave you thinking about the unhappy couple long after you’ve turned the last page.

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I thought it was a good idea to go back and re-read Gardens of the Moon once I finished the 4th volume in Steven Erikson’s epic Malazan Book of the Fallen sequence just to refresh my memory regarding how it all began. So far, in volumes 2 (Deadhouse Gates), 3 (Memories of Ice) and 4 (House of Chains), we followed the different trails of the main story, all connected and set in the same time frame. The cast of characters is huge and Erikson keeps introducing new ones in each volume. I toyed with the idea of continuing on to volume 5, Midnight Tides, straight after House of Chains, but I thought I’d better take stock first. And I’m really glad I did. I hadn’t actually forgotten the plot in Gardens of the Moon, which I first read over two years ago, but so many things began to make sense and fall into place.

So, Erikson kicks off his sequence by setting his first volume just before the Empress Laseen usurps power. He then fast-forwards nine years when she has set her sights on the city of Darujhistan on the continent of Genabackis. We follow Captain Ganoes Paran, working for Adjunct Lorn, Laseen’s second in command, who is on the trail of one of the Bridgeburners, the legendary Malazan corps, whom they suspect is not who they seem. We also meet the Bridgeburners who survived the siege of Pale, Dujek One Arm, Whiskeyjack, Quick Ben, Kallam, Fiddler and others who are given orders to infiltrate and sabotage the city. Opposing them are the T’iste Andii led by Anomander Rake and Caladan Brood as well as the mercenary Crimson Guard who are sworn enemies of the Malazan Empire. We are also introduced to Kruppe, a bumbling figure who is not as scatter-brained as he seems and his friends Rellick Nom, Murrillio and Crokus Younghand who live in Darujhistan. And then there is Sorry, the newest and youngest recruit of the Bridgeburners, deadly and possessed by a God.

This isn’t just about the human characters, but also the gods who are itching to enter the story including Oppon, the twins of chance, who have chosen Ganoes as their pawn in their game of power. Shadowthrone and Cotillion, the two newest Gods are looking for a way to get their revenge on Lasseen for taking their mortality. As I keep saying, the Malazan books are really hard to summarise as Erikson keeps introducing new characters. But I enjoyed re-reading Gardens of the Moon because I felt like I was meeting old friends. The T’lan Imass, the immortal ancestors of men who can vanish into dust, the Jaghut Tyrants who laid waste to continents because of their hunger for power, the T’iste Andii, beings from another world, who live in perpetual sorrow. And the mages and sorcerers who get their power from the magical warrens or paths, each different and separate, and in which they can travel. Everything makes a little more sense.

In Gardens of the Moon, Ganoes Paran escapes his noble heritage by becoming a soldier, leaving behind his two sisters, the cold and ambitious Tavore and young and innocent Felisin. He sets off to Darujhistan looking for Sorry. But before he finds her, he is ambushed and drawn into a game of gods, escaping death by forfeiting a life not his own and tasting the blood of a Hound of Shadow which will forever change him. His lover Tattersail, an army mage, and her gamble to wreak revenge on the Imperial mage Tayschrenn will lead to events which no one can foresee. And Quick Ben’s deception of Shadowthrone and his intricate plans to ensnare the crazy wizard Hairlock will lead to Sorry’s liberation. And we are always drawn back to Lasseen, inscrutable, deadly and the cause of it all.

Re-reading Gardens of the Moon has once again re-awakened my astonishment at Erikson’s scope and intricate plotting. You can see how cleverly he’s set up the story right from the beginning. And going back to the beginning a second time, it’s even more heart-breaking as you know the choices made by the characters will have such significant repercussions. And really, I can’t believe how I didn’t pick up on how amazing Quick Ben is the first time around. I guess I was just dazzled by Anomander Rake’s long silver hair and cold demeanour.

This may not be a series you want to dive into if you haven’t read any fantasy before. I would recommend reading a few fantasy books before starting the Malazan Book of the Fallen which is aimed at adults. I grew up reading Terry Pratchett, Raymond Feist, Katherine Kerr, Janny Wurts and Stephen Donaldson, all of whom I recommend highly.

If you want to be challenged and to enter a rich and exciting world, I urge you to give this book a try. Really, you won’t regret it. It’s even better the second time around, which is quite rare for me as I tend to do a lot of skimming. But I didn’t here. I even read all the poetry that sets up each chapter as I now know they are relevant to the story. Erikson doesn’t spoon feed you. He makes you work. And that makes it even more rewarding.

After Gardens of the Moon, you may want to read Erikson’s collaborator Ian C. Esslemont’s Night of Knives which is set at the beginning of the events of this book.

I’m now reading Midnight Tides and I’m just happy that I’ve got a further 5 more thick volumes to read. I want to know what happens, but I don’t want it to end! Absolutely brilliant.

This is my first book for Carl’s Once Upon A Time V Challenge!

I think this was my third favourite novel by Christie (after Murder on the Links and The Mysterious Mr. Quin), but I couldn’t remember exactly why as I had read it donkeys years ago. So perusing my de-cluttered bookshelf at home I thought I’d do a little re-reading and sweep the cobwebs aside.

It’s a small novel in two parts featuring Hercule Poirot and his friend the crime novelist Ariadne Oliver. What I liked about Elephants Can Remember is the unorthodox structure of the novel. It felt very modern and then I realised that it was written in the 1970s so the feel of the novel, although retaining Christie’s trademark golden age crime flavour, was a bit more experimental. I liked it tremendously. In fact, it’s Christie’s last novel featuring Poirot, although Poirot’s last case Curtain, though written earlier, was published later.

The mystery begins when Ariadne Oliver is accosted by one Mrs. Burton-Cox who wants to dig up information on Ariadne’s god-daughter Celia Ravenscroft who also happens to be her son’s fiancé. Ariadne is repulsed by this woman and also does not want to dig too deep into Celia’s tragic past. A scandalous tragedy, both of Celia’s parents died in an apparent suicide 12 years ago. Or was it murder? What Mrs. Burton-Cox wants to know is whether the father killed the mother or vice versa. Although reluctant to snoop, Ariadne calls upon her friend Poirot to see whether he can puzzle it out. And when Celia herself wants to find out the truth of her parents’ deaths, both Ariadne and Poirot must go back into history and find out what really happened.

Christie has put together a cast of suspects from Mrs. Ravenscroft’s slightly unhinged twin sister Dolly, her son, two French governesses, a cook and of course Celia’s parents. Mrs. Burton-Cox is also acting rather suspiciously and before you know it, you are suspecting everyone, including Celia, who was then about 14 years old.

As usual, Christie always manages to astound me with the dénouement. I’ve read so many murder mysteries thanks to Christie that I can now spot the murderer from a mile away. But I still remember the thrill of reading this book as the tragic story unfolds. This time around, I noticed more the ingenious way Christie tries to draw your attention away, leaving a trail of red herrings, as you follow Ariadne and Poirot’s progress into the past. What startled me was actually how dark the story is, not something you would expect from a Christie novel. Of course, it’s a tale of murder, but we tend to think that compared to modern fiction, those written in earlier times are perhaps lighter and safer. Although there’s no gore or gratuitous violence, the themes underlying Christie’s mysteries are very dark indeed.

Christie used to be my favourite mystery author for a long time and although I hadn’t read her novels in years since I finished going through them, re-reading them is a true pleasure. She has been accused of having one-dimensional characters, stereotypes and following a formula, but she’s much more than that. What she’s good at is simply telling a damned good story. And I think few, even now, can compare.

I’m also a huge fan of the TV adaptations of her stories (even though some bear little resemblance to the books). To me, they are a comforting reminder of my childhood. Yes, I even got stopped at the airport once because I was carrying one of her novels featuring a gun on the cover (I think it was The ABC Murders). I think I was about 10 then. Oops.

So, have you read any novels by Christie? And if so, which is your favourite tale?