What an intense, emotionally charged novel! I’ve heard about Wide Sargasso Sea, by Jean Rhys, since I was a teenager growing up in Barbados. Somehow, it never crossed my reading path until now. The long wait was certainly worth it! Although I must confess the narrative unfolded in a way I had hardly expected.
What I enjoyed most about Wide Sargasso Sea was the fiery mystery and intrigue that Rhys builds around the protagonist, Antoinette Cosway, a newly wed Creole (i.e., Caribbean White) woman, who is cursed by her family’s haunting past as slave owners. In many ways Wide Sargasso Sea is symbolic of the indelible shadow cast on the whole Caribbean by slavery. Both the descendants of African slaves and their white slave masters are inextricably entangled in the depravity wrought by slavery. Every family, is haunted by countless skeletons’ in the closet, which tie Black and White, slave and slave master, together in a shadowy world in which shameless cruelty is counteracted by sinister obeah (black magic). Rhys’s description of Jamaica and Dominica capture the unmistakable savage beauty and complexity of the Caribbean, spanning the length and breadth of the Sargasso sea, with its dense forests of Sargassum seaweed that sclerotically entrain everything that it encounters.
I nevertheless have a few minor quibbles with Wide Sargasso Sea. The first part of the book was extremely tiresome and confusing. I constantly felt off balance, with the narrative seeming to flow in almost incoherent pulses steeped in intense emotion. It was only in part two that I managed to hook into the plot and thereafter I couldn’t put it down. The abrupt changes in narrator from Antoinette to her husband, the Englishman, Mr. Rochester, is at first quite jarring. Although, later the contrast reinforces the differences in their abject states of mind. The one is wracked by feelings of distrust and being deceived, while the other is driven to madness by rejection and betrayal.
Overall I would definitely recommend Wide Sargasso Sea to anyone interested in delving deeper into Caribbean literature, especially if you are interested in gaining insight into the deleterious aftermath of slavery and colonization on the people of this region.
Suggested additional reading:
A prerequisite for reading Wide Sargasso Sea is Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte. It is reputed that Wide Sargasso Sea is a product of Rhy’s lifelong obsession with Bronte’s novel. I must confess that I have unfortunately not (yet) read Jane Eyre, but I would recommend to read it prior to tackling Rhy’s magnum opus. You may also want to consider reading two other novels by Caribbean authors for additional context on the post-colonial Caribbean. Notably, In the Castle of My Skin by George Lamming and The Mimic Men by V.S. Naipaul, both of which are cited in the introductory note.
Have you read Wide Sargasso Sea? or any of Jean Rhys’ other writings? What are your thoughts after reading this novel? What do you find most captivating about her writing? Thank you as always for stopping by! Please feel free to share your thoughts or reactions in a comment below. Also, if you would like to receive more updates about my writing please consider joining my newsletter mailing list by subscribing below.