When we read a story, we inhabit it. The covers of the book are like a roof and four walls. What is to happen next will take place within the four walls of the story. And this is possible because the story’s voice makes everything its own. – John Berger

Back from hibernation! My reading over the last few months certainly included books with wintry themes – but as often happens with reading plans, another pattern emerged – one of identity and voice.

Voyage in The Dark by Jean Rhys
An essential part of my interest in this novel is the closely biographical aspect, as it mirrors Rhys’s experiences, before she became part of the bohemian Paris literary scene in the late 1920s. She had published a collection of stories and two novels before Voyage in the Dark was released in 1934, but it draws on her earliest writing.

Anna Morgan grew up in Dominica and after the death of her father comes to England with her stepmother, who soon withdraws financial support, forcing Anna to make her own way. The social realities for a young woman with few family or monetary resources in pre-war 1914 England, are depicted with unflinching honesty. Ever present are Anna’s recollections of Dominica introducing strange ways of seeing and articulating, counterpointed with her observations of the wet, grey English streets.

“It was as if a curtain had fallen, hiding everything I had ever known. It was almost like being born again. The colours were different, the smells different, the feelings things gave you deep down in yourself was different. Not just the difference between heat, cold; light, darkness; purple, grey. But a difference in the way I was frightened and the way I was happy.”

Anna initially works as a chorus girl but the constant moving and damp climate result in recurrent illness. Then she meets Walter, who sets her up in a hotel room in London and gives her money for clothes. As Anna becomes increasingly emotionally and financially dependent, it becomes clear that they have very different expectations of the relationship. Class and gender politics come to the fore as Walter inevitably breaks it off with Anna. She falls in with other women making their own way in London; a masseuse who maintains a veneer of propriety and caution, and a fun-loving girl who more clearly relies on the generosity of her many male “friends” to get by. The observations of the way women use clothes to bolster their esteem, and the link between hope for a better future and spending are still relevant. Anna has several short relationships, each more disappointing than the last, often prompted by being desperately short of money. As she descends into depression, a clarity of voice emerges which one hopes will see her through.

“It’s funny when you don’t want anything more in your life except to sleep, or else to lie without moving. That’s when you can hear time sliding past you, like water running.”

St John (1988) by Gerhard Richter

St John 1988 by Gerhard Richter

When the novel concludes, Anna’s future is far from certain, her doctor’s reassurance that she’ll be “ready to start all over again in no time, I’ve no doubt” reverberates in her mind as “starting all over again, all over again”.  This is what Rhys does so well – the singular perspective, entailing all the messiness of memory, acute observation and painful emotional interactions – emerging as a clear and distinct voice.

Rhys’s moody style and lonely characters, especially in her short stories (my favourite is the collection Tigers are Better-Looking) prompted me to return to her work. Now I’m curious about the next phase of her life, fictionalised in Quartet, which charts her affair with Ford Maddox Ford.

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