Book reviews: Wide Sargasso Sea & Annie John

Posted by Bel. The time is 5:15pm here in Wellington, NZ.

A double up book review, because I read these very quickly and as they were both set in the Caribbean, with themes of racism, colonialism and a young woman struggling to establish/maintain her identity, it almost felt like a flow-on from one to the other.

Jean Rhys' Wide Sargasso Sea was written in 1966 as a prequel to Charlotte Brontë's classic Jane Eyre. It could work as a stand-alone book, but the characters are so much more enriched if you are familiar with the story of Jane Eyre. (SPOILERS ahoy, if you aren't!)

The book's main character, Antoinette Cosway AKA Bertha Mason, is best known as the ominous crazy woman in the attic of Brontë's 1847 tome, responsible for 'haunting' the lovely lead and wreaking fiery havoc.

Wide Sargasso Sea tells of her early life, where being Creole means she cannot feel part of, or be accepted by, white or black society. She comes to be distanced from her remarried mother, and Antoinette's own marriage only causes further harm. The unnamed British husband (a young Rochester) seems to despise the marital arrangement, despite his profiting financially from it. He basically persistently mind-fucks with Antoinette, unable to transcend the communication gulf between them - and increasingly intimidated by his perceived fears about her race and family history of mental illness.

I'm probably making this sound a rather dark and dreary book - and it's true that there's no happy ending. (Especially when you take in account what occurs once Rochester gets her back to ye olde England!) But Wide Sargasso Sea is a good read, with descriptions of the island life and scenery that are lush and livid, expressing the vitality that Antoinette once had. I found it unusual that chunks of the book where in the first-person from Rochester's perspective, when I'd expected it very much to be Antoinette's personal tale. But it did give perspective on his behaviours and thus on their impact on her and her mental stability.

To follow that up, I read another book set in the Caribbean, telling a young woman's story - some themes overlapped, but fortunately it was all somewhat lighter to read.

Annie John has that 'autobiographical' feel to it, and is described by wiki as being "an imaginative account of her experience". (Apparently Jamaica Kincaid was born Elaine Richardson, but changed her name in the 60s as her family did not approve of her writing.)

As in Wide Sargasso Sea, Annie's relationship with her mother becomes distant as she grows older. The awkwardness of the mother-daughter relationship and the conflict arising as the adolescent begins to establish their own identity is beautifully rendered. There is a lot of pain, but at the same time it is such an important thing - and something that is so frequently reduced to cliche in American television, etc.

Colonialism (and its dangerous restrictions) is another dual theme. Education is important to bright-spark Annie, but the school she attends in mired in an institutionally British approach which she seems unable to help rebelling against. This is emphasised by the issues that arise when she is ill, and her mother must sneak in the obeah woman (AKA voodoo, the Haitian word apparently) because her father only approves of 'Western medicine' - just as in Wide Sargasso Sea Rochester was suspicious of anything potentially associated with these local traditions.

Funnily enough, I felt there were some parallels with Jane Eyre even. Annie strikes up an strong friendship with another schoolgirl, similar to the relationship between Jane and Helen early on in Jane Eyre. In both books, this does not seem to be an explicitly lesbian connection, but rather a celebration of the intensity of friendship unique to that age and an exploration of sexuality that happens sometimes at that turbulent phase of hormones and chemistry.

Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys - Recommended if you have read Jane Eyre
First published 1966. Set in Jamaica, 1840s
#36 on 'The List' of 75 books total (39 to go!)

Annie John by Jamaica Kincaid - Recommended if you were an angsty teen
First published 1985. Set in Antigua, 1950s.
#37 on 'The List' of 75 books total (38 to go!)

4 thoughts on “Book reviews: Wide Sargasso Sea & Annie John”

  1. Did you see "After Mrs Rochester" that Shared Experience brought over to the Festival about 4 years ago?

    It's a inspired by the life of Jean Rhys who also grew up in the Caribbean ... fantastic play - not sure how it comes off on just the script alone, though.

  2. Oooh no - haven't heard of it, sounds interesting tho.
    What I read about her has been quite intriguing: she'd been writing for decades when this book plucked her out of obscurity apparently..!

  3. I didn't dig Wide Sargasso Sea as much as I expected to - I had only just read Jane Eyre (which I love with a passion), and was obsessed with the 2006 BBC adaptation of it (which I love with even more of a passion), and from those two had taken a very sympathetic view of Rochester, which WSS wasn't quite able to overcome due to the freshness of my JE feelings. I'll keep it on my shelf and give it another read in a couple of years when Rochester isn't fuelling my fantasies. (Not that he literally is, in case that conjured some weird fangirl scenario!)

    After Mrs Rochester sounds brilliant! Wish I'd seen it.

  4. Yeah, Rochester does come off pretty bad in WSS - I did wonder how it would effect my ...feelings... towards him upon re-reading Jane Eyre. Do we assume he has learnt from his mistakes? matured? is in denial? Masters thesis holla back now!!