Friday, 2 May 2014

Book Review: Good Morning, Midnight by Jean Rhys

Good Morning, MidnightAt times life can be hard to bear for everybody, but some people perceive their existence as a neverending ordeal, a burden weighing too heavily on their shoulders and their souls. The question is how we deal with the vicissitudes of life that fate has in store if we like it or not. Do we (re)act or do we just endure? Can we find meaning in suffering or do we despair of it? Can we keep our souls open and vulnerable despite all or do we lock up our soft hearts in an impenetrable and protective shell? The protagonist of the novel which I’m reviewing today belongs to the helpless and resigned who slip into depression and drown their pain in alcohol. Good Morning, Midnight by Jean Rhys gives insight into the depths of an unhappy mind. 

Jean Rhys, real name Ella Gwendolyn Rees Williams, was born in Roseau, Dominica (then: British West Indies), in August 1890. As daughter of a Welsh doctor and a third-generation Creole, Jean Rhys always felt an outsider which also reflects in her literary work. While living in Paris with her first husband in the 1920s, she got to know Ford Madox Ford who encouraged her to take up writing. Her first book was a collection of short stories titled The Left Bank and Other Stories (1927) which was followed by the novel Postures (now published as Quartet) the year after. In the 1930s the author brought out After Leaving Mr. Mackenzie (1931), Voyage in the Dark (1934) and Good Morning, Midnight (1939), but her biggest success and true breakthrough as a writer didn’t come until 1966 when her most famous novel Wide Sargasso Sea appeared. Jean Rhys died in Exeter, England, United Kingdom, in May 1979. 

The short novel Good Morning, Midnight tells the life of the English-woman Sasha Jensen and it begins five days after her return from London to Paris in the late 1930s, more exactly after her arrival in a cheap hotel room that is just as depressing and dim as any of the others she had known during many years in the French capital. It’s all “Quite like old times” from the start. Life hasn’t treated Sasha too well since on an impulse she left England after the Great War with a fortune-hunter whom she married in Amsterdam although by that time both knew that the other was penniless too. The couple made their way to Paris in the hope of a prosperous future which never materialised, though. Even the marriage didn’t last because Sasha’s husband soon got fed up with married life and abandoned her for days on end. When their baby was born, Sasha was alone, and so she was when the boy died a few days later. At last her husband left Sasha for good and yet her life continued in the same rut which required doing jobs that she never managed to keep for long, borrowing money from friends and acquaintances to make ends meet, frequenting cafés and night clubs, heavy drinking and scarce meals, hiding poverty, grief as well as loneliness from the world. When she went back to London eventually, her family was ashamed of her and yet she stayed for a while. On her return to Paris Sasha is in her early forties and painfully aware of her fading youth. She strolls through Paris in her old imitation astrakhan coat, a dear present of her husband, and a fashionable new hat on her freshly dyed hair which make her look wealthy although she lives off borrowed money. She gets to know two Russian émigrés, one of them a painter who hopes to sell a picture to her, and a mean gigolo who not just butters her up, but also stalks her. Sasha sees what is coming and doesn’t care, much rather the absurdity of the situation amuses her and she puts up with everything. 

The story of Good Morning, Midnight is revealed through the protagonist’s eyes in a kind of stream of consciousness which mixes and alternates present and past. The series of disappointments emerging from Sasha’s memory has taught her to see the world as a gloomy and hostile place where she stands all alone, without true friends and without hope. Also human striving has become absurd and pointless to her. Moreover, she doesn’t have the strength nor willpower to take things into her own hands and lets herself drift through existence. She’s no more than a passive survivor and helpless sufferer, the unhappy puppet of a merciless fate. Therefore the storyline has been called depressing to the point of repulsion, but like all of Jean Rhys’s works also this one is highly autobiographical as a matter of fact. The title of the novel is borrowed from a poem by Emily Dickinson which too creates an atmosphere full of sadness and quiet suffering. Jean Rhys achieves the same in a very precise and masterly concise language which conveys many powerful pictures and allows the reader a look deep into the soul of a woman in despair. 

Certainly, Good Morning, Midnight by Jean Rhys isn’t a read to cheer us up when we are down, but it’s a precious and deep novel which can teach us a lot about the mental maelstrom which torments unhappy people, especially sensitive ones… and about depression. I enjoyed this novel very much although it was really sad from beginning to end. And of course I recommend it.

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