A few thoughts on Jean Rhys’ Wide Sargasso Sea
This is why you read. This is why you read stuff you didn’t know much about. This is why you trust “best books” lists and critics’ opinions, and pick up a book you’ve never heard any of your friends talk about.
Because sometimes, the book you picked up as a result turns your mind upside down and makes you see the world through different eyes. I’d bought this book several years ago, but it just sat in my shelf after I found it was a “response” to Jane Eyre, and I hadn’t read Jane Eyre yet.
So last year, I finally read the classic and liked it enough to want to put this book back on the reading queue. And now that I’ve read this one, it’s as if Bronte created a flimsy story on top of a seething cauldron of experience, something tame that hid all the violence that colonialism and racism has wrought. Rhys unpacks all those underlying experiences - the heiress from Jamaica who’s caught between two other sides in her own country, the Englishman with his assumed superiority, whose discomfort with the tropical paradise makes others doubt their own home, the tacit assumption by him that non-whites aren’t mature or cultured enough, the same place turning beautiful or strange when seen through different eyes. She makes us see all these experiences through the characters’ eyes, and we understand them all even if we don’t always agree.
And by the end, the death of the heroine - yes, Antoinette is the real heroine, not the governess who stole the Englishman’s heart - comes as a fated, prophesied event rather than a happy accident to free up the husband.
Read, read. Really.