Prequel to Jane Eyre – The Wide Sargasso Sea

214fjjbbskl-_ac_ul160_  In her prelude to Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre, The Wide Sargasso Sea, Jean Rhys offers the backstory of the first Mrs. Rochester, the madwoman in the attic who destroys Thornfield Hall and herself by fire.  Although the book was published fifty years ago, Rhys’s story is a good reminder the classics have hidden secrets: critical analysts sometimes refer to Bertha as Jane’s alter ego.  After seeing the book on a list of favorites by a fellow reader, I decided to reread this short book and found myself quickly caught up in its fervor.

 In Part One, set in Jamaica, Antoinette, the Creole daughter of a white slave owner, later called Bertha by her English husband, tells the story of her sad childhood. Lonely and rejected by her mother, and running wild after her father dies, she lives in poverty until her mother remarries.   She survives the fire set by an angry mob of locals, destroying her childhood plantation home and driving her mother to madness, and is sent off to a convent. When she is seventeen, her fortune attracts a tall, second son of an Englishman, with no inheritance of his own. Antoinette has a sense of foreboding and imagines she cannot escape her fate.

Part Two begins with Antoinette’s husband narrating the honeymoon, soon to be interrupted by a strange letter revealing the horrors of Antoinette’s background.  Never feeling comfortable in the tropical surroundings of his wife’s home,  Rochester now becomes cold and distant. In a sad and pathetic moment, Rhys has Antoinette enlisting  the voodoo magic of her childhood caregiver to remedy her situation. But her fortune now belongs to her husband, who wants to return to England.

In Part Three, Antoinette’s perspective returns, though she is now living as the quarantined Bertha in Thornfield’s drafty attic.  This section is the shortest, cleverly connecting to Bronte’s book.  Nowhere in the text of her novel does Rhys mention Rochester by name, but she clearly connects to him in the end, as Bertha dreams of setting fire to Thornfield and ending her miserable life.

In Jane Eyre, Bertha raves and screams, but in The Wide Sargasso Sea, Rhys gives her a voice.   In Rhys’s novel, she is the victim of oppression, treated as if she were a ‘white cockroach’ by her family’s black servants, and rejected by Rochester.  Like Jane, she had her own dreams.

The Wide Sargasso Sea won the Cheltenham Booker Prize in 2006.  The Cheltenham Prize, created as a companion to the Man Booker, identifies who might have won the Prize if it had existed a century earlier. For a list of the winning books, click on Book Awards: Cheltenham Booker Prize.  You might find another old book worth a second read.  

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The Man Booker Baker’s Dozen

Unknown The anticipated Man Booker Longlist announced today has a few familiar titles but some books are not yet published in the United States.  Thirteen books made the prestigious list.

Paul Beatty’s The Sellout, a satirical assessment of racism in the United States, tops the list.  The winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award, Beatty’s novel uses a Jonathan Swift premise in his character’s modest proposal to bring back segregation and slavery.

Four other American novels on the list include Pulitzer Prize winner Elizabeth Strout’s My Name Is Lucy Barton.  The author of Olive Kitteridge and The Burgess Boys, Strout returns with a short but powerful novel as she tells the story of suffering and relationships.

Ottessa Moshfegh’s suspenseful tale, Eileen, also examines a lonely woman – this one works in a boys’ prison.  Virginia Reeves uses the setting of prison – this one in Alabama in Work Like Any Other, and David Means’ Hystopia imagines a third term for former President John F. Kennedy.

From the United Kingdom, another mother-daughter relationship is explored in Deborah Levy’s Hot Milk,  Graeme Macrae Burnet’s psychological thriller His Bloody Project looks for motivation behind a murder, Ian McGuire’s The North Water has a suspenseful journey of a  ruined doctor volunteering on a whaling ship, and Wyl Menmuir’s The Many has a strange mystery in a coastal village.

The Schooldays of Jesus from Australian Nobel prize winning author J.M. Coetzee will be published in the United States in February, 2017.  David Salzay’s All That Man, set in Prague,  will be published in October, 2016.

Canadian Madeleine Thien’s Do Not Say We Have Nothing centers on the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989 China. From the United Kingdom, A.L. Kennedy’s Serious Sweet offers “a day in the life of London lonely hearts.”  Both are not yet released in the United States.

Thirteen books to digest before the committee proclaims the short list in September, and the winner in October.

Minnesota Roots and A List of Books

images  Before Prince created the Minnesota Sound, Jason Diamond reminds us that F. Scott Fitzgerald was a native Minnesotan.  In his article for the travel section of the New York Times – Tracing F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Minnesota Roots – Diamond reviews the Minnesota places haunting many of Fitzgerald’s work.

“He wrote The Beautiful and the Damned in the yellow Victorian home with the wide porch on Goodrich Avenue and took strolls along White Bear Lake, about 10 miles to the north, in his mid-20s, newly married and having just published his first book – it was the place where he was inspired to set and write Winter Dreams.  Minnesota, it seemed, was good to him.”

I had never read “Winter Dreams,” and found the short story free online -you can read it here –  Winter Dreams  full of Minnesota references.

Fitzgerald was a prolific writer but in 1936, as he was  convalescing in a hotel in Asheville, North Carolina,  he offered his nurse a list of 22 books he thought were essential reading – none of his were on the list. 

These are books that F. Scott Fitzgerald thought should be required reading. Have you read any of them?

  1. Sister Carrie, by Theodore Dreiser
  2. The Life of Jesus, by Ernest Renan
  3. A Doll’s House, by Henrik Ibsen
  4. Winesburg, Ohio, by Sherwood Anderson
  5. The Old Wives’ Tale, by Arnold Bennett
  6. The Maltese Falcon, by Dashiel Hammett
  7. The Red and the Black, by Stendahl
  8. The Short Stories of Guy De Maupassant, translated by Michael Monahan
  9. An Outline of Abnormal Psychology, edited by Gardner Murphy
  10. The Stories of Anton Chekhov, edited by Robert N. Linscott
  11. The Best American Humorous Short Stories, edited by Alexander Jessup
  12. Victory, by Joseph Conrad
  13. The Revolt of the Angels, by Anatole France
  14. The Plays of Oscar Wilde
  15. Sanctuary, by William Faulkner
  16. Within a Budding Grove, by Marcel Proust
  17. The Guermantes Way, by Marcel Proust
  18. Swann’s Way, by Marcel Proust
  19. South Wind, by Norman Douglas
  20. The Garden Party, by Katherine Mansfield
  21. War and Peace, by Leo Tolstoy
  22. John Keats and Percy Bysshe Shelley: Complete Poetical Works

Around the World in 80 Books

UnknownStill yearning to travel?  Kate Scott has conveniently collected 80 books from around the world for BookRiot.com.  A few I have read:

  • The Kite Runner  representing Afghanistan
  • The Blind Assassin –  Canada
  • Cutting for Stone – Ethiopia
  • The Name of the Rose – Italy
  • The Garden of Evening Mists – Malaysia
  • Like Water for Chocolate – Mexico
  • The Dinner – Netherlands
  • The Shadow of the Wind 0 Spain
  • To Kill a Mockingbird – United States

So many more to read.  For her complete list, go to A Global Reading List 

Related Review:  The World Between Two Covers

The Peculiar Life of a Lonely Postman

9781843915362_p0_v1_s192x300Denis Theriault’s The Peculiar Life of a Lonely Postman surprised me.  

 Bilodo, a Montreal postman, secretly opens other people’s mail before delivery, and lives vicariously through their hand written letters.  When he opens the letters between Ségolène, a young woman in Guadeloupe (a French territory in the Caribbean) and  Grandpré, a local professor and poet, he is immediately caught up in the exchange.  

Anticipation of the letters offers Bilodo a respite from his dreary life, but when the poet is killed in a car accident, Bilodo despairs.  To keep the epistolary exchange going, Bilodo takes a leave of absence from his job as a postman.  He assumes Grandpré’s identity, moves into his apartment, and continues to write to Ségolène.  

Since the poet has only written in haiku, with Ségolène responding in kind, Bilodo must learn how to write this traditional Japanese poem.    At first, his attempts are pedestrian but he improves as the story continues.   As the letters fly back and forth, growing more and more ardent, two incidents threaten to interfere in the intrigue and the budding love affair. The first is resolved, but the second was quite a surprise.

The book is short and compelling and the ending is a shock that I did not see coming.  Although the book has been compared to work by Julian Barnes (possibly for the strong impact through a short work), the ending reminded me of Kafka.  

Originally published in 2008 in Canada, and recently republished by UK’s Hesperus Press, the book is not in my library’s collection.  Since the book is a testament to writing actual letters, it seemed ironic I could only find the ebook version.

The Peculiar Life of a Lonely Postman is worth looking for and reading: I enjoyed it.  It may inspire you to sit right down and write a letter, as you consider which persona you will use to wield your pen.

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