“We pulled up and looked at the hills, the mountains and the blue-green sea. There was a soft warm wind blowing but I understood why the porter had called it a wild place. Not only wild but menacing. Those hills would close in on you.” (69)
Wide Sargasso Sea, Jean Rhys
Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys was published in 1966, and is 190 pages. I remember someone, somewhere telling me this was her favorite book. It was based on the “mad woman” upstairs in Jane Eyre, a fictional history of the wife who went crazy. When I learned this history included being raised on a Caribbean plantation and was set just after slavery ended, I knew I’d be interested since my first book, Receive Me Falling, is set on a Caribbean sugar plantation.
I loved the book. It had the opiate landscape of a Poe story, full of unreliable narrators, voodoo, and a dreamlike/nightmarish quality that made it both mesmerizing and impossible to put down.
The first narrator, Antoinette Cosway, tells of her upbringing on a slave plantation with her lusty father, her unstable mother, and her mute younger brother, along with a smattering of “unmentionable” half-slave relatives. The death of her father, torching of her plantation by angry freed slaves, rejection of her mother, and death of her brother make Antoinette a nervous, fearful woman whose only comforts are her island surroundings and a few, trusted slave companions.
After Antoinette’s mother remarries, her stepfather corners an Englishman (Jane Eyre’s, Mr. Rochester) and arranges an ill-fated marriage. What ensues is the disastrous mingling of two people from two very different worlds, steered to their doom by the suspicious, skittish nature of the man.
What is most interesting about the book is the way Rhys taints everything of beauty. Rochester acknowledges Antoinette is beautiful but he feels no love for her. He tells of the lush, tropical surroundings, but feels as if they’ll swallow him. Antoinette tells Rochester she’s happy, but follows it by saying she’s afraid of happiness because she’s never experienced it. Rhys doesn’t give the characters or the readers a moment of peace.
Wide Sargasso Sea is a tragedy, but one worth reading. If you like Toni Morrison or Edgar Allan Poe, you’ll enjoy this.