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This week, I read what is widely considered the most canon piggyback novel, The Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys.
The book is divided into three parts and tells the unhappy story of Antoinette Cosway, a Creole heiress living in an oppressive colonialist society. Suffering from an isolated childhood, then an arranged marriage, and finally a forced upheaval to England, Antoinette turns into one of the most tragic and doomed characters in literature, as she ends her story as an infamous madwoman in the attic.
By creating a tragic history for the beautiful, but mad woman Bertha –yes that Bertha, Rochester’s first wife in Jane Eyre- Rhys is able to more intimately explore the troubled relationships between the Caribbean and Europe, and the colonial identities that Bronte merely implied.
The prose is short, swift, and sometimes brutal, and it perfectly creates this gorgeous and exotic Caribbean landscape in the mind’s eye, expertly engulfing the reader into the world of Jamaica in the 1830s.
Divided into three parts, the narration bounces back and forth between Antoinette and Rochester, with Antoinette chronicling her unhappy childhood in the first part, the two of them depicting their troubled marriage in the second, and the third shifting back to Antoinette as her madness reaches its peak in England. While this shifting between narrators is a bit disconcerting when it first appears, it’s quick to get used to and really rounds out the whole, tragic tale.
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The Wide Sargasso Sea is a beguiling masterpiece that captures readers from the very first page and takes them on a wild and turbulent journey before they are brought right into the eye of the hurricane. Fans of Bronte and Jane Eyre would definitely do well to devote a day or two to its chapters (it’s a remarkably short read considering how much is crammed into it).
Author: Jean Rhys, 1966
Published: Andre Deutsche (London), 1966
Achievements: WH Smith Literary Award 1967