Strengths: Meticulous prose and a real feeling for the setting.
Weaknesses: Leaves a lot to your imagination.
Why I read it: More Jane Eyre (kind of).
Published: 2000 (originally published 1966)
Setting: West Indies and England
Rating: 7 out of 10
Wide Sargasso Sea is one of those books that’s always been at the back of my mind to read. Jane Eyre fans have raved about it and apparently a friend of a friend of a friend wrote a thesis on it. It’s been upheld as the epitome of language conveying so much in just a few words. After reading this book, I agree with the wonderful prose (apparently Jean Rhys spent a very long time honing this work) and the eerie, unsettling feeling that creeps over you while reading this rather short book. But I can’t say that I loved it.
Why did I think that? I liked it as a story, but I feel as a fan girl of Jane Eyre it doesn’t fit in with my (probably idealised) version of Mr Rochester. I tried hard to read this as a standalone book and I found myself coming in on the side of Antoinette (who Mr Rochester – although he is not named – chooses to rename Bertha). Antoinette has had a difficult life, losing both her brother and mother. Her mother’s descent into madness worries her and she is all too easily convinced by others. She begins a strong character but at the end becomes a burden to her husband. The marriage (not a love match but a financial transaction) starts with love but ends up with hate, distrust and suspicion over the two parties’ disparate backgrounds. Both seem to make half-hearted attempts to repair their very young marriage but to no avail. I didn’t feel like I really knew the characters in depth, more just as an outline.
The prose is elegant and Rhys creates a detailed setting in the West Indies. I felt closer to the surroundings than I did Antoinette and her husband. Stylistically, it’s a beautifully written book. I’d like to read another of Rhys’ books that didn’t go into Jane Eyre territory because I think it could be brilliant. But unfortunately the story and the characters didn’t really come to life for me.