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.

Affinity by Sarah Waters

17 April, 2010

I’ve been meaning to read this book for ages, since I finished The Night Watch last year (which I loved, loved, loved), and had heard many nice things about it, and I finally did! And since I also wanted to watch the TV adaptation, I thought I’d post a joint review similar to that posted by su[shu] for Murakami Haruki’s Tony Takitani.

Unlike the majority of Sarah Waters’ fans, I fell in love with her writing starting with The Little Stranger followed by The Night Watch. I had previously read Fingersmith when it was first published in 2002 and don’t recall it having any serious impact on me. But it looks as though Fingersmith seems to be everyone’s favourite book, so I’ve got a copy on standby for a re-read in the near future.

There is something magical about Waters’ prose. It starts out quietly, silently and slowly draws you in, deeper and wanting more. That was how I felt when reading Affinity. The Night Watch had such an impact on me that I thought somehow I may have been spoilt and not find Affinity as enjoyable. Certainly the style was different, and so was the setting and plot. But Affinity had such atmosphere and, like the main character Margaret, I was completely taken in.

The story begins with Margaret Prior, a spinster in her late twenties, who is recovering from her beloved father’s death. To occupy herself, she has volunteered to go and spend some time talking to and helping the female inmates of Millbank Prison. Here she meets women outside her social circle and discovers Selina Dawes, a spiritual medium who is serving five years for causing harm to a young girl and, indirectly, the death of her patron. Margaret is fascinated by Selina who insists that it was Peter Quick, her spirit conduit who was to blame. In the stifling atmosphere of Millbank Prison, Margaret finds herself drawn to the beautiful girl and soon experiences strange occurrences that can only be attibuted to the work of spirits. Can this be real? And will she be able to save Selina?

Although Waters’ writing is wonderful, I found the book to be rather slow at the beginning. It is only after finishing the book that I realised what a genius Sarah Waters is. The plot is constructed in such a clever way that you are Margaret, and you fall in love, you start to believe in the spirits Selina sees and then you realise suddenly what has really been happening. It all slots into place and you are left reeling, wondering why you never saw what was plainly there in front of your eyes.

Really, you have to read this book. And please read it before you watch the TV adaptation. Because although the adaptation was good, it just isn’t as good as the book.

I thought the casting of Anna Madeley and Zoe Tapper as the two main characters in the TV adaptation was brilliant. The script was written by Andrew Davies who also wrote the scripts for Pride and Prejudice (the one with Colin Firth) and Bleak House, both of which I loved. But somehow, you lose something in the translation and I found it a little wanting. As so often happens, I noticed a couple of changes which I felt may have been necessary for the adaptation but changed the meaning of the story a little. However, the cinematography was beautiful and I think it captured the spirit of the book.

It was interesting to watch the DVD straight after reading the book to compare them, but maybe it might have been better if I had let a couple of weeks dampen my enthusiasm for the book so that I could have given the DVD a chance. What do you think?

This is one of two books that were lent to me by one of my friends. ‘You must read this,’ she said as she pressed the book into my hands. ‘You’ll love it.’ And I did.

Erick Setiawan’s Of Bees and Mists is a fairy tale set somewhere in South East Asia and sometime in the modern era (although where and when isn’t clear). Setiawan writes beautifully and his story is a blend of Eastern folklore but written with a modern touch. I was completely charmed by it and shook with anger at the utter evil which the heroine Meridia has to battle as she fights for her love.

And I applaud Setiawan for creating one of the most evil characters I have ever come across in my reading life. I guess what you think is evil will depend on what you probably fear. In my case, it is Eva, Meridia’s mother-in-law, who is extremely sly, clever and visciously manipulates everyone around her and doesn’t care about the damage she inflicts.

The title, Of Bees and Mist, describes the two halves of Meridia’s life. She grows up in a household of mists: her parents, the once beautiful but now eccentric Ravenna and silent and severe Gabriel who keeps to his study, only appearing to eat the meal his wife prepares, once so in love but no longer speaking after a traumatic accident soon after her birth. Meridia grows up in this sad household, longing to find out what had caused the rift in her parents marriage and escape the oppressive atmosphere, and she does so when she falls in love with Daniel, a jeweller’s son. Looking forward to creating a new life and family, Meridia soon finds that things are not all they seem in Daniel’s family household where she goes to live and that she has to fight an even more monstrous foe in the shape of her mother-in-law Eva and the ominous bees that seem to surround her. We follow Meridia as she grows up, becomes a mother and learns how to protect and nurture her family all the while battling the demands Eva makes on her family. Will she be able to save her marriage, and will she be able to heal the rift between Ravenna and Gabriel?

Setiawan’s characterisation is beautiful, especially his female characters who are the true stars of this book. Ravenna, silent, jealous and still in love, Meridia, strong and resilient and Eva, the control freak who will go to any lengths to keep her son under her thumb. It is a world where women are expected to act in a certain way, yet must have the strength to fight for what is rightfully theirs. And although each character experiences tremendous hurt and sorrow, there is some form of redemption at the end.

The novel wasn’t what I expected from the cover and blurb. It’s a fairytale, bildungsroman and love story all deliciously wrapped in a South East Asian setting without being too specific and easily categorisable. You can see the influence of Asian and European myths and fairytales and I loved the way Setiawan makes his story his own, completely different from what is out there, making it hard to compare with any other book.

This would have been a great read for Carl’s Once Upon a Time IV challenge, but I read this book as part of the Women Unbound challenge.

Wow, what a surprise. Can I just say, I loved, loved, loved this book. Graceling has been prominent in a lot of sff blogs and review sites for a while now and has garnered lavish praise. But it didn’t really tickle my fancy until I saw it at my local library and decided, why not? Let’s give it a try. And boy am I glad I did. From the first sentence to the last, Graceling hooked me by its beautiful sentences and incredible story. Kristin Cashore is an amazing writer, and the world she has created is inspired. The world of the Seven Kingdoms itself may be familiar to readers of fantasy, but the graces which bless/inflict some of the characters is a really interesting concept. This is a clever twist on superhero powers and Cashore uses this to explore feelings of alienation, belonging, power, greed and love.

The strength of Graceling lies in the characters, especially the two main protagonists who you will fall in love with as the story progresses. Katsa and Po first meet in a dramatic rescue of Po’s grandfather who was kidnapped by an unknown enemy. What makes this encounter special is that both Katsa and Po are graced with eyes of two different colours and very special gifts. But these graces are not always welcome: Katsa’s grace is killing and she has been working for her uncle, King Randa, as his personal enforcer, dishing out pain and punishment to keep his law. She is ashamed of who she is and wishes somehow that she could change. Po is graced with fighting but has a secret to keep even from his own family. And in a world where peace is an ever fragile thing, there is one person who is drunk on power and wants its all. Katso and Po must find who tried to kidnap his grandfather and prevent the world falling into the hands of their enemy.

Cashore’s novel is deliciously twisted and she strikes a fine balance between good and evil. I liked Katsa who is a feisty, strong and yet vulnerable young woman who knows what she does and doesn’t want and who understands the pain of alienation. She lives in a man’s world and the only reason she can move about it freely is her royal stature and her strength. Cashore has created a heroine who is a better fighter than the men around her, yet I found her extremely feminine and compassionate. However she doesn’t use her femininity to fight, she fights the men on their terms. Katsa knows who she is and doesn’t try to be anyone else. She struggles with her identity and comes out of this struggle stronger and more self assured. And in the process, she finds love and is able to open herself to another person. This is something that all of us go through and Cashore writes about it beautifully.

I, for one, cannot wait to read Cashore’s next book Fire which has just been published this year.

This is my first offering for the Women Unbound Challenge.

The Secret History of the Pink Carnation by Lauren Willig

I don’t recall where I stumbled upon this title but it was definitely on a book blog. So yay book blogs! And lucky me found this in my local library, which surprised me a little, as there hasn’t been that much coverage in the UK.

The Scarlet Pimpernel first stole my heart since I first read Baroness Orczy’s novels at school and watched Leslie Howard (what a dream!) as the elusive hero in black and white. More recently I watched Anthony Andrews take over as Sir Percy Blakeney on the telly, so I couldn’t really skip the chance of reading The Secret History of the Pink Carnation by Lauren Willig. It’s not a difficult book and took me a couple of days to finish, but it was very entertaining. Willig manages to entwine the fictional tale of the Scarlet Pimpernel with the reality of her characters by introducing his successor, the equally elusive Purple Gentian, after Sir Percy is unmasked and retires from espionage.

The story follows Eloise Kelly who is on secondment from Harvard to research the history of the Scarlet Pimpernel, the Purple Gentian, unmasked as Lord Richard Selwick, and the even more elusive Pink Carnation. Although the identities of the Pimpernel and Gentian are know, the Pink Carnation is still a mystery and Eloise is determined to find out who he is.

The story moves back and forth from the present day as Eloise reads the secret letters belonging to the Selwick family which chronicles the adventures of feisty Amy Balcourt, on a quest, together with her cousin Jane and chaperone Miss Gwen, to find and aid the Purple Gentian in restoring France’s monarchy and revenging her father’s death.

If you love the adventures of the Scarlet Pimpernel, do look this up because it’s light, funny, dotted with witty references to the Pimpernel himself and has a healthy dash of romance. After all, one of the things about the Scarlet Pimpernel that caught my heart was his love for his wife Margeurite.