Tag Archives: Jean Rhys

Plans for #ReadingRhys, a week devoted to the work of Jean Rhys

As some of you may recall, back in May I posted an announcement about the Jean Rhys Reading Week that will be taking place from Monday 12th to Sunday 18th September. In essence, it’s a week centred on reading and discussing the work of this remarkable writer.

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If you’re wondering who Jean Rhys is or was, she is widely considered to be one of the greatest writers of the 20th century. The daughter of a white Creole mother and a Welsh father, Rhys grew up on the Caribbean Island of Dominica, moving to England at the age of sixteen to live with an aunt. After the death of her father, she drifted into a series of jobs spending time as a chorus girl, a mannequin, and an artist’s model. Rhys led a tough and tortured life, but in many ways, those harsh experiences made her the writer she was. (Her work is now considered to have been way ahead of its time.) She started writing when the first of her three marriages broke down. You can read a little more about her here in these articles from The Guardian and The Paris Review.

During her lifetime, Rhys published five novels: Quartet (1929); After Leaving Mr Mackenzie (1931); Voyage in the Dark (1934); Good Morning, Midnight (1939); and Wide Sargasso Sea (1966). She also wrote several short stories – a number of collections have been issued and are still available to buy secondhand if you’re willing to hunt around. There is a series of letters too, plus Smile Please: An Unfinished Autobiography.

Eric Karl Anderson, who writes so eloquently about books at the Lonesome Reader blog, will be joining me in co-hosting the reading week. Eric is a long-standing fan of Jean Rhys, so it will be fantastic to have his input. Poppy Peacock (who writes about books at poppy peacock pens) and Margaret Reardon (another long-standing Rhys fan) will also be helping us with a couple of activities during the week. Between the four of us, we’re planning to cover pretty much all of Rhys’ work to give a broad view of her oeuvre. We’d love as many readers as possible to get involved by reading one of more of Rhys’ books (or even a relevant biography).

With a few weeks to go before the start of the week, we just wanted to give you an overview of what will be happening during the week and to let you know how you can get involved. Ideally we’d love you to read something by Rhys (or a book connected to her work) and then to share your thoughts about it via one or more of the following routes:

  • If you have a blog, you could write a review or article about the book and post it there.
  • Alternatively, share your thoughts on GoodReads. We’ve set up a ‘Jean Rhys Reading Week’ group on GoodReads with a discussion topic for each book, plus one on Rhys’ life – do join if you use GR.
  • Tweet about it on Twitter using the hashtag #ReadingRhys.
  • Add your comments to other readers’/bloggers’ reviews/posts which will be going up throughout the week.

You can post your reviews and comments at any time from 12th-18th September, it’s entirely up to you.

To give you an idea of what each of us will be focusing on, here’s a schedule for the reviews/posts we are planning to issue during the week.

#ReadingRhys Schedule:

Monday 12th September

  • Welcome to #ReadingRhys, plans for the week + After Leaving Mr Mackenzie* – Jacqui (at JacquiWine’s Journal)
  • Welcome to #ReadingRhys, plans for the week + Good Morning, Midnight – Eric (at Lonesome Reader)

Tuesday 13th

  • Voyage in the Dark – Eric (at Lonesome Reader)

Wednesday 14th

  • Tigers are Better-Looking (short stories) – Jacqui (at JacquiWine’s Journal)

Thursday 15th

  • Wide Sargasso Sea – Eric (at Lonesome Reader)
  • Quartet – Poppy (at poppy peacock pens)

Friday 16th

  • An interview with a special guest – Jacqui (at JacquiWine’s Journal)

Saturday 17th

  • Good Morning, Midnight – Margaret (at newedition.ca)
  • Smile Please – Eric (at Lonesome Reader)

Sunday 18th

  • Rhys’ Letters: 1931-66 – Poppy (at poppy peacock pens)
  • The Left Bank (short stories) – Jacqui (at JacquiWine’s Journal)

(*I’ve already written a piece about After Leaving Mr Mackenzie here, but I’ll be revisiting the novel with my book group in early September.)

Between the four of us, we’ll be taking responsibility for visiting your blogs, the relevant GoodReads threads and reading comments on Twitter etc. At the end of the week, we’ll pull together some brief summaries of everyone’s responses to the books with a view to posting these on our blogs and the GoodReads group area during w/c 19th September.

So that’s the plan for the week. You can post your reviews and comments at any time, and we’ll visit when we can. Do add the banner (near the top of this piece) to your own posts as and when they go up and feel free to add it your blog if you’re planning to participate. Please use the #ReadingRhys hashtag in any Twitter comms about the event.

***** Good Morning, Midnight Giveaway! *****

As a little incentive, we have 5 copies of the brand new Pocket Penguins edition of Good Morning, Midnight to giveaway. For a chance to win one of these prizes, please tell us what you’re planning to read for #ReadingRhys week in the comments below.

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The giveaway will run until midnight on Thursday 25th August (UK time) after which time we will select five winners at random. It’s open to everyone worldwide, so please feel free to enter wherever you live. Do include a note of your contact details in your comments, either an email address or Twitter/GoodReads handle. Good luck!

We’re really looking forward to discussing Rhys’ work and we hope you will join us during the week.

In the meantime, if you have any comments, queries or suggestions for the Jean Rhys Reading Week (#ReadingRhys), please leave a comment here or get in touch with one of us via Twitter. We tweet at @JacquiWine, @lonesomereader, @poppypeacock and @2daffylou.

Announcing Jean Rhys Reading Week: 12th-18th September 2016

Well, this is happening! Firstly, thank you to everyone who responded and shared my post on canvassing interest in a Jean Rhys Reading Week. The response has been amazing – it seems as though several of you are keen to read and discuss Rhys’ work, which is great to hear. Early September has emerged as the most convenient or preferred option for the majority of you, so we’ve decided on w/c 12th September – please save the date in your diaries.

Jean Rhys

Also, I’m delighted to announce that Eric Karl Anderson, who writes so eloquently about books at the brilliant Lonesome Reader website, will be joining me in hosting the event. Eric is a long-standing fan of Jean Rhys, so it’ll be great to have him on board as a co-host. We’re both very excited by the prospect and we’ll be planning the event over the summer months – please do get in touch with either of us if you have any thoughts or suggestions. You can contact us via our blogs or via Twitter where we tweet @JacquiWine and @lonesomereader.

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In the meantime, maybe you could think about a Rhys you might like to read for the event? Ideally, we’d like as many people as possible reading and talking about Rhys during September’s event, sharing reviews, thoughts and experiences as we go through the week. Once again, thanks so much to everyone who has expressed an interest so far. It’s been wonderful to see so much love for this writer’s work over the past week!

All the best,

Jacqui and Eric

PS Eric is on holiday right now, so please don’t worry if he doesn’t respond to any messages immediately – he’ll be back shortly.

Canvassing interest in a Jean Rhys Reading Week

Back in March when I wrote about Jean Rhys’ third novel, Voyage in the Dark, Grant (of 1streading’s blog) commented that he had a stack of Rhys books just waiting to be read. If only someone would hold a Rhys reading week (hint, hint), then it might encourage him to get started. So with this in mind, along with my own interest in tackling another of her books in the not too distant future, I’d like to canvass interest in the possibility of a Jean Rhys reading week later this year. You know the type of thing: a week-long event where readers would read a book (or even a short story or two) by Rhys and share their thoughts by posting a review on their blog, by talking about it on Twitter/other social media channels or by commenting on the reviews/chatter posted during the week. (Even if you’ve already read everything by Rhys, maybe you could revisit a favourite?)

Jean Rhys

(Image from theguardian.com)

If you’re wondering who Jean Rhys is or was, she is widely considered to be one of the greatest writers of the 20th century. The daughter of a white Creole mother and a Welsh father, Rhys grew up on the Caribbean Island of Dominica, moving to England at the age of sixteen to live with an aunt. After the death of her father, she drifted into a series of jobs spending time as a chorus girl, a mannequin, and an artist’s model. Rhys led a tough and tortured life, but in many ways those harsh experiences made her the writer she was. (Her work is now considered to have been way ahead of its time.) She started writing when the first of her three marriages broke up. You can read a little more about her here in these articles from The Guardian and The Paris Review.

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During her lifetime, Rhys published five novels: Quartet (1929); After Leaving Mr Mackenzie (1931); Voyage in the Dark (1934); Good Morning, Midnight (1939); and Wide Sargasso Sea (1966). She also wrote several short stories – a number of collections have been published and are still available to buy secondhand if you’re willing to hunt around. There is a series of letters too, plus Smile Please: An Unfinished Autobiography.

Please let me know in the comments if you would be interested in participating in a Rhys reading week. If so, it would be useful to hear if you have any preferences on timings. If there’s sufficient interest in an event, then I’m thinking either early-mid July or the beginning of September. That way, we could avoid the school holidays and any clashes with Women in Translation Month which runs during August. Also, if you would be interested in co-hosting the event with me, please let me know – I’m still fairly new to Rhys, so it would be useful to have someone with a bit more experience under their belt to act as a co-host. You can contact me here or via Twitter (@JacquiWine). Finally, any shares of this post would be much appreciated, just to spread the word and to enable me to gauge the level of interest. Cheers.

Voyage in the Dark by Jean Rhys

Back in December, when I put together my reading list for the Classics Club, one of the first books I selected was Jean Rhys’ Voyage in the Dark (first published in 1934). Rhys’ second novel, After Leaving Mr Mackenzie (1931), had been a favourite of mine from 2015, so it seemed right to choose her next book, Voyage, as a follow-on read. If anything, I think Voyage is even better than its predecessor. A masterpiece in miniature – a brilliant, painful, devastating book that leaves it mark upon the reader.

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Set largely in London in 1913/14, Voyage is narrated by an eighteen- year-old girl, Anna Morgan, brought to England from her former home in the West Indies by her stepmother, Hester, a selfish woman who all but abandons Anna to survive on her own following the death of her father.

When we first meet Anna, she is working as a chorus girl in a show, sharing a room with fellow showgirl, Maudie, as their tour moves from one seaside town to another. One afternoon when Anna and Maudie are out for a walk they meet two men, one of whom is Walter Jeffries, a relatively wealthy man who lives and works in London. Walter is quite taken with Anna, and when the girls’ tour winds up in the capital, he invites Anna to dinner at a hotel in Hanover Square.

Anna is young, vulnerable and inexperienced in love. At first she rejects Walter’ advances, pushing him away as forcefully as possible. In a very subtle scene, Rhys explores the rush of thoughts running through Anna’s mind as Walter tries to kiss her. It’s as if she is looking down on herself, her mind disconnected from her body in some way. She longs to start all over again with Walter and for everything to be better next time.

I sat down on the bed and listened, then I lay down. The bed was soft; the pillow was as cold as ice. I felt as if I had gone out of myself, as if I were in a dream.

Soon he’ll come in again and kiss me, but differently. He’ll be different and so I’ll be different. It’ll be different, I thought. ‘It’ll be different, different. It must be different.’ (pg. 21)

It’s not long before Anna falls for Walter, becoming largely dependent on him for both financial and emotional support. But Walter is a weak and spineless man; at nearly twenty years her senior, he is only interested in Anna as a plaything, a young girl ripe for the taking. When it comes to breaking off relations with Anna, Walter gets his friend, Vincent, to write to her on his behalf, explaining that he doesn’t love her any more, in fact he almost certainly never did.

What follows is Anna’s unravelling as she drifts around London in a state of depression, moving from one down-at-heel room to another, trying to make ends meet as best she can. I could say a little more about the plot, how Anna ends up slipping somewhat unconsciously into a state of dependency, turning to drink and sleeping with men in the hope of some much-needed comfort and warmth; but there are other, potentially more interesting aspects of the book that warrant discussion here.

What is so impressive about Voyage is the way Rhys immerses the reader in Anna’s thoughts and emotions; we are completely inside this young girl’s mind, sensing everything with her, feeling her pain and desperation, her hopes and expectations as she is exploited by those around her. The book is written in a modernist style which moves seamlessly from Anna’s thoughts to her memories of life in the West Indies to events happening around her at the present time. The following quote gives a feel for Rhys’ approach. In this scene, Anna has arranged to meet Walter in the hope of persuading him to continue with their relationship. Her thoughts about Walter are intercut with memories of a funeral she attended as a child (presumably either her mother’s or her father’s as both her parents are dead).

I imagined myself saying, very calmly. ‘The thing is that you don’t understand. You think I want more than I do. I only want to see you sometimes, but if I never see you again I’ll die. I’m dying now really, and I’m too young to die.’

…The candles crying wax tears and the smell of stephanotis and I had to go to the funeral in a white dress and white gloves and a wreath round my head and the wreath in my hands made my gloves wet – they said so young to die…

The people there were like upholstered ghosts. (pg. 83)

England is portrayed as a cruel and harsh country, a dark, unwelcoming place that offers very little in the way of support. Rhys makes excellent use of recurring imagery to augment this feeling of exclusion: ‘dark houses all alike frowning down one after the other all alike all stuck together.’  At times, Anna feels trapped in a room where the walls appear to be closing in on her, an image which adds to the sense of claustrophobia in the novel. All this provides a stark contrast to the West Indies of Anna’s childhood, vividly portrayed as a lush land brimming with colour, a location full of the sights, smells and sounds of life.

Those around Anna are often quick to pass judgement on her actions. Her closest friends criticise her for not making an effort to go out and talk to people. There is an assumption that because she is young and has her whole life ahead of her, she ought to be happy and optimistic. But in reality, Anna is struggling to cope with life; she is cold and tired and homesick. All she craves is a little warmth and affection; either that or the safety of sleep – at least it’s a respite from having to live.

But I stopped going out; I stopped wanting to go out. That happens very easily. It’s as if you had always done that – lived in a few rooms and gone from one to the other. The light is a different colour every hour and the shadows fall differently and make different patterns. You feel peaceful, but when you try to think it’s as if you’re face to face with a high, dark wall. Really all you want is night, and to lie in the dark and pull the sheet over your head and sleep, and before you know where you are it is night – that’s one good thing. You pull the sheet over your head and think, ‘He got sick of me,’ and ‘Never, not ever, never.’ And then you go to sleep. You sleep very quickly when you are like that and you don’t dream either. It’s as if you were dead. (pgs. 120-121)

Anna’s landladies also waste little time in moralising about her position, labelling her a common little tart because she comes home in the middle of the night and then goes out a day or so later dressed up to the nines (the assumption being that Anna has purchased some new clothes with the money received for services rendered). This sense of moral judgement extends to the broader society too. In this scene, Anna and her friend Laurie have been taken out to a restaurant by two men. By the end of the dinner, a woman at the next table is getting annoyed with Anna’s party (Laurie, in particular, is a little drunk). Here are Anna’s thoughts on this woman and others of a similar ilk.

But I was thinking that it was terrifying—the way they look at you. So that you know that they would see you burnt alive without even turning their heads away; so that you know in yourself that they would watch you burning without blinking once. Their glassy eyes that don’t admit anything so definite as hate. Only just that underground hope that you’ll be burnt alive, tortured, where they can have a peep. And slowly, slowly, you feel the hate back starting… (pg. 103)

And then there is Hester, Anna’s stepmother, a sanctimonious, self-righteous creature who cares little for her stepdaughter’s welfare. Here’s how Anna describes her – I thought this description was simply brilliant:

She had clear brown eyes which stuck out of her head if you looked at her sideways, and an English lady’s voice with a sharp cutting edge to it. Now that I’ve spoken you can hear I’m a lady. I have spoken and I suppose you now realize that I’m an English gentlewoman. I have my doubts about you. Speak up and I will place you at once. Speak up, for I fear the worst. That sort of voice. (pg, 50)

As you’ve probably gathered by now, I really loved this book. It’s a certainty for my end-of-year highlights; in fact I think it might be one of the best things I’ve ever read. Anna’s story is all the more tragic given its connection to Rhys’ own life experience – the novel feels semi-autobiographical in nature. By the time I’d finished reading it, my notebook was full of scribbles and quotes, many of which I’m struggling to find room for here.

I’ll finish with one final quote, a passage which, along with the earlier one on Anna not wanting to go out, seems to capture something of the essence of this book. There is an overwhelming sense of bleakness, fear and disillusionment running through this story, and I think you can see it here. (As a slight aside, clothes appear to play an important role in the lives of the women in Rhys’ novels. If a woman is to attract a new man she must look presentable, so clothes are often seen as offering a form of hope, a possible opportunity for the future.)

The clothes of most of the women who passed were like caricatures of the clothes in the shop-windows, but when they stopped to look you saw that their eyes were fixed on the future. ‘If I could buy this, then of course I’d be quite different.’ Keep hope alive and you can do anything, and that’s the way the world goes round, that’s the way they keep the world rolling. So much hope for each person. And damned cleverly done too. But what happens if you don’t hope any more, if your back’s broken? What happens then? (pgs. 111-112)

Voyage in the Dark is published by Penguin Modern Classics. Source: personal copy.

My Books of the Year, 2015 – favourites from a year of reading

For me, 2015 was another year filled with great reading. I read around 90 books in 2015 (mostly older books), and only a handful turned out to be disappointing in some way. Once again I found it very difficult to finalise a shortlist for this post, but I’ve managed to whittle it down to a final thirteen: a baker’s dozen of excellent books, plus a few honourable mentions along the way! These are the books I love, the books that have stayed with me, the ones I’m most likely to revisit one day. I’ve summarised each ‘winner’ in this post, but you can click on the links should you wish to read the full reviews.

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First up, five category winners:

Reread of the Year: The Easter Parade by Richard Yates

Considered by some to be Yates’ best, this novel follows two sisters who take very different paths in life. Their story taps into a familiar theme in this author’s work: the search for happiness and fulfilment that always seems to elude his characters. Despite the deep sense of sadness running through the novel, this was my favourite reread of the year. A superb book (I doubt whether it gets much better than Richard Yates).

Honourable Mentions (All of these are winners in their own right): After Leaving Mr Mackenzie by Jean Rhys; A Heart So White by Javier Marías; The Long Good-Bye by Raymond Chandler.

Crime Novel of the Year: The Secret in Their Eyes by Eduardo Sacheri (tr. John Cullen)

Set against the backdrop of Argentina’s Dirty War, the story focuses on the bond that develops between a clerk in the Buenos Aires investigative court and the husband of a murder victim. This is a first-rate novel—part psychological mystery, part exploration of corruption in the Argentine criminal justice system, but always engrossing.

Honourable Mentions: Vertigo by Boileau-Narcejac; Topkapi – The Light of Day by Eric Ambler

Autobiographical Novel of the Year: Nothing Holds Back the Night by Delphine de Vigan (tr. George Miller)

To be honest, I’ve only read a couple of autobiographical books this year, but the de Vigan was so good that I had to find a slot for it somewhere! Virtually impossible to summarise in a couple of sentences, this remarkable story focuses on a woman’s quest to gain a deeper understanding of her mother following the latter’s death by suicide. A genuinely absorbing book, beautifully written – de Vigan’s prose is luminous. 

Novella of the Year: The Bookshop by Penelope Fitzgerald

Poor Florence Green is up against it at every turn as she tries to open a bookshop in the (fictional) Suffolk town of Hardborough. The town is the kind of microcosm where everybody knows everybody else’s business, a place where gossip, hierarchies and class systems all play an important role. Fitzgerald writes with great insight about life’s failings and disappointments, but she is a humorous writer too – every scene is so finely observed. Of the three Fitzgerald novels I’ve read to date, this is my favourite.

Honourable Mentions: Tristana by Benito Pérez Galdós; Madame de___ by Louise de Vilmorin; Agostino by Alberto Moravia.

Short Story Collection of the Year: Thus Were Their Faces by Silvina Ocampo (tr. Daniel Balderston)

I love the stories in this edition of forty-two pieces drawn from a lifetime of Ocampo’s writing, the way they often start in the realms of normality and then tip into darker, slightly surreal territory. Several of her stories point to a devilish sense of magic in the everyday. An unusual and poetic collection of stories that blur the margins between reality and the imaginary world. Highly recommended, especially if you’re looking for something different.

Honourable Mentions: Things Look Different in the Light by Medardo Fraile; Subtly Worded by Teffi.

And now for the novels, eight favourites from a year of reading:

Run River by Joan Didion

It was a tough call between this book and Didion’s iconic Play It As It Lays; in the end, Run River was the one that stood out for me. I love the melancholy tone of this novel which explores the disintegration of the relationship between a husband and wife living in California. There is a sense of things dying here: Lily and Everett’s relationship; the traditional rancher’s way of life; people die too. I can’t imagine it being set anywhere other than California. In some ways, it’s a lament for a time that has all but disappeared. One for fans of Richard Yates – there are similarities with The Easter Parade.

Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont by Elizabeth Taylor

This novel follows a recently widowed elderly lady, Mrs Palfrey, as she moves into the Claremont Hotel where she joins a group of residents in similar positions – each one is likely to remain there until a move to a nursing home or hospital can no longer be avoided. This is a beautiful, bittersweet, thought-provoking novel, one that prompts the reader to consider the emotional and physical challenges of old age: the need to participate in life, the importance of small acts of kindness, the desire to feel valued. Taylor’s observations of social situations are spot-on (there are some very funny moments). A real gem.

A Way of Life, Like Any Other by Darcy O’Brien

Part compassionate satire, part touching coming-of-age story, this semi-autobiographical novel was inspired by O’Brien’s experiences of growing up in Los Angeles in the 1940s and ‘50s. The boy’s father used to be a famous actor, but his career has faded over the years. By the time he is twelve, the boy is living with his melodramatic, alcoholic mother, acting as her confidante and helping her through the bad times. This is a wonderful book – funny, sad, ironic and sympathetic. In many ways, it reminds me of early-to-mid-period Woody Allen (you know, the good ones before things went astray).

Young Man with a Horn by Dorothy Baker

Dorothy Baker makes my reading highlights for the second year running, this time with Young Man with a Horn, a novel inspired by the music of jazz legend, Bix Beiderbecke. The story focuses on the life of a fictional character named Rick Martin, a jazz musician whose passion for music is so great that he struggles to keep pace with his own ability. This is good old-fashioned storytelling strong on mood, atmosphere and the rhythm of the music. Baker’s writing is top-notch.

Of Love and Hunger by Julian Maclaren-Ross

Set in the 1940s, this novel is narrated by Richard Fanshawe, a young man who finds himself in the unenviable position of trying to eke out a living by selling vacuum cleaners to sceptical housewives. The story is shot through with dark humour, much of which stems from Maclaren-Ross’ wonderfully sharp observations on Fanshawe’s experiences as a salesman and life at the boarding house where he rents a room. Probably my favourite read of the year – a must for Patrick Hamilton fans.

Desperate Characters by Paula Fox

Set in New York in the late 1960s, this short novel follows a weekend in the lives of Sophie and Otto Bentwood, a childless upper-middle-class couple living in Brooklyn. When Sophie is bitten by a cat, the incident is the first of a number of disturbing events that threaten to destabilise the Bentwoods’ seemingly harmonious existence. This is a subtle and very effective character study; slowly but surely Fox peels away the layers to expose Sophie’s vulnerability and Otto’s failings. A novel that has grown in my mind over time.

Nora Webster by Colm Tóibín

Set in Enniscorthy (the author’s birthplace), a small town in the south-east of Ireland in the late 1960s, Tóibín’s latest novel is the touching story of a woman who has to find a new way to live following the death of her husband. This is a novel that speaks to me on a personal level; so much of Nora’s story reminds me of my own mother’s experiences following the loss of my father. A subtle character study of a woman’s inner life. As one might expect with Tóibín, the sense of place is wonderful, too.

Carol / The Price of Salt by Patricia Highsmith

Highsmith’s ‘underground’ novel centres on the development of a relationship between Therese, a young aspiring designer and Carol, an older woman in the midst of a divorce and custody battle for her child. I really love this book; it is beautiful, insightful and involving. The central characters are so well drawn – the longing Therese feels for Carol is portrayed with great subtlety. While Carol is quite different to the other Highsmith novels I’ve read, it contains moments of real tension, both sexual tension and flashes of fear and anxiety. Familiar Highsmith themes such as obsession, desire and morally complex scenarios are here, albeit in a different context. This is the source novel for Todd Haynes’ recent film, Carol – both the novel and the movie come with a high recommendation from me.

Thank you to everyone who has read, shared or commented on my posts over the last year, I really do appreciate it. Wishing you all the best for the festive season and the year ahead, may they be filled with many wonderful books!

Finishing my #TBR20 – a few reflections

Some of you may have noticed that I’ve been tagging my recent reviews with #TBR20. You may have heard about this initiative on twitter, or read about it posts by other bloggers (Emma and Max have joined recently – I’ve included links to their posts. Other participants are here). In essence, #TBR20 is a way of tackling the ever-growing ‘to-be-read’ pile of books by reading twenty books you already own before buying any more. It’s Eva Stalker’s idea – you can read Eva’s original post here. Eva started her #TBR20 in November with the aim of finishing by the end of March – you can read her latest post here (one month on from completing her twenty).

Like Eva, I already owned more unread books than I knew what to do with, so I decided to start a round of #TBR20 at the beginning of December. By the first week in April, I’d finished reading my twentieth book, Clarice Lispector’s Near to the Wild Heart (not my favourite book of the twenty, but an exhilarating read nonetheless). If you’re interested, here’s a picture of my twenty books (well, nineteen of them as I read Mary Costello’s Academy Street on kindle).

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One month on from finishing my #TBR20, I thought it would be useful to jot down a few notes on how it worked for me, partly for my own benefit but also because it might be of interest to others.

From the outset, I decided to pick my twenty books as I went along. I had a ‘draft’ set of twenty books piled up on the bookshelf, but I tinkered with it every now and again. My reading tends to be driven by my mood; I need variety, a change of pace or tone. I want books that take me to different periods and places. There are times when one book leads to another, something with a similar idea or theme or an interesting contrast. I found this relatively easy to manage by maintaining the flexibility to move a few books in and out of the pile.

This approach came into its own when I reached the end of January. I hit a difficult period at home. A mysterious pain appeared on one side of my body and refused go away. A protracted sequence of tests, hospital visits and periods of uncertainty followed. I’ll spare you the details, but it turns out that I have a crack in one of my ribs, a fracture that is taking some time to heal. It’s still there, and it’s rather painful.

Out went a few challenging or intense books; in came a few books I just knew I would enjoy. Novels like the warm and affectionate A Way of Life, Like Any Other by Darcy O’Brien; an escape to 1950s LA in the form of Raymond Chandler’s The Long Good-bye; and the comfort of rereading a favourite novel, A Heart So White by Javier Marias. (I checked with Eva, rereads are in line with the spirit of #TBR20 – it’s about valuing the books you already own even if you’ve read them before.) All three turned out to be terrific choices.

I also decided only to count the books I intended to review, mainly to tag and record them on here. In addition, I excluded a couple of review copies which I read and posted about while I was doing #TBR20. Library loans (which I used for books chosen by my book group) were also excluded. All in all, I ended up reading 24 books from my TBR/reread shelf (20 reviewed + 4 not reviewed), two review copies and two library loans. You can find links to all my reviews in this index here, or you can click on the #TBR20 tag at the bottom of this post.

So what have I learned from #TBR20?

  • Well, I’ve rediscovered a sense of excitement about the books I bought many months or years ago, several of which were personal recommendations or purchases prompted by other bloggers’ reviews.
  • My original ‘draft’ twenty did not include enough crime, hardboiled or noir to satisfy me; that’s where I would have struggled had I not made at least one tweak.
  • My current TBR includes more than enough choice and variety to satisfy my reading whims. I don’t need any more books. (That doesn’t stop me wanting a few more every now and again.)
  • I don’t feel attracted to the new releases just because they are ‘new’. I still crave books, but the ones I want to buy tend to be older releases, backlist titles by some of my new favourite authors (Elizabeth Taylor, Penelope Fitzgerald, Joan Didion, Ross Macdonald and Javier Marias spring to mind) or other reissues that have caught my eye.
  • I have missed the enjoyment of browsing in bookshops. This has been the biggest challenge, to keep away from temptation. I allowed myself just one visit to a bookshop during the four months of #TBR20, a trip to the new Foyles. Time for a small confession. It was my birthday in March, and I cracked – I used a birthday book token to buy myself a little something: A Month in the Country by J.L. Carr. I nearly read it that very week, but it’s sitting on my bookshelf for a late summer treat. I just know I’m going to love it.
  • When I started my #TBR20, I set up a new wishlist for the books I wanted to buy. By the beginning of April, there were twenty books on that list, and that’s following a couple of rounds of pruning. I had intended to allow myself six new books, but temptation got the better of me and I ended up buying twelve (eek!), the others remain on the wishlist. Here they are – as you can see, I’ve gone a bit NYRB Classics crazy.

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  • I’ve already read three of them, all fantastic: Philippe Beaussant’s Rendezvous in Venice, Dorothy Baker’s Young Man with a Horn and Alberto Moravia’s Agostino (reviews to follow). I intend to keep the others for a while; they have joined the ranks of the great TBR.
  • I need to carry on with the spirit of #TBR20, of valuing the books I already own rather than allowing myself to be distracted by the next craving. I’m not sure if I can go another four months without buying ANY new books; it might be a little too soon after the first round.
  • As an alternative approach, I’m going to try to cut back on buying books (especially now that I’ve had a splurge). I’m still thinking about what might work for me over the next few months. Possibly a TBR10 or a ‘Three Out, One In’ approach? Maybe I’ll try a TBR10 and see how I get on. If it works out, I might push on through to another twenty, but I’ll need to choose the books I want to read as I go along. I know that much. There are still a good 200+ unread physical books (and around 50 e-books) in this house, so there’s plenty of scope for me to appreciate the ones I already own.

Good luck to those of you who are doing the #TBR20. I hope my thoughts are of some interest – do let me know your thoughts on #TBR20, tackling the reading pile or on any of the books I’ve mentioned. All are welcome.

Belinda Farrell has also posted her thoughts on finishing #TBR20 here.

After Leaving Mr Mackenzie by Jean Rhys

First published in 1930, After Leaving Mr Mackenzie was Jean Rhys’ second novel. Set in Paris in the late 1920s, it features a woman in her thirties, Julia Martin. For the past six months, Julia has been surviving on an allowance of 300 francs per week which she receives from her ex-lover, Mr Mackenzie.

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When we first meet Julia, she is living in a room in a tawdry hotel in Paris – the sort of place where the staircase smells of the landlady’s cats. She is down on her luck, tired of life, and her looks have started to fade. Here’s a brief but telling description of Julia:

Her eyes gave her away. By her eyes and the deep circles under them you saw that she was a dreamer, that she was vulnerable – too vulnerable ever to make a success of a career of chance.

She made herself up elaborately and carefully; yet it was clear that what she was doing had long ceased to be a labour of love and had become partly a mechanical process, partly a substitute for the mask she would have liked to wear. (pg 11)

As the story unfolds, we gather that Julia’s affair with Mr Mackenzie ended rather unpleasantly. He has distanced himself from Julia, and all transactions take place by way of his solicitor, Henri Legros. One Tuesday, Julia receives a letter from Legros informing her that the weekly allowance will be discontinued – enclosed is a final payment of 1,500 francs. Even though she had always expected this would happen one day, Julia feels bruised and discarded. There is no place for her in their world:

When she thought of the combination of Mr Mackenzie and Maître Legros, all sense of reality deserted her and it seemed to her that there were no limits at all to their joint powers of defeating and hurting her. Together the two perfectly represented organized society, in which she had no place and against which she had not a dog’s chance. (pg. 17)

Consequently, Julia decides to confront Mr Mackenzie, and she follows him to a restaurant with the aim of having it out. At this point in the novel, Rhys does something very interesting – the point of view switches from Julia to Mr Mackenzie, and we get a sense of his perspective. Mackenzie is in his late forties, comfortably off, and rather lacking in compassion or honourable moral values:

He had more than once allowed himself to be drawn into affairs which he had regretted bitterly afterwards, though when it came to getting out of these affairs his business instinct came to his help, and he got out undamaged. (pg. 19)

As Mackenzie waits for his order at the restaurant, a place he had visited with Julia when they were together, his thoughts turn to their affair:

He had lied; he had made her promises which he never intended to keep; and so on, and so on. All part of the insanity, for which he was not responsible.

Not that many lies had been necessary. After seeing him two or three times she had spent the night with him at a tawdry hotel. Perhaps that was the reason why, when he came to think of it, he had never really liked her. (pg. 19)

Julia’s arrival at the restaurant heralds one of the pivotal scenes in the novel. It’s too intricate, too subtle to describe here, but it’s a great piece of writing. Julia refuses her ex-lover’s payoff and leaves with her dignity reasonably intact; Mackenzie hopes that no one has witnessed their exchange. Luckily for Julia, the encounter is noted by an Englishman named George Horsfield, who is sitting at the next table. When Julia leaves the restaurant, Horsfield follows. Julia has had a difficult life, and it shows – she appears tired and depressed. Horsfield befriends Julia, gives her 1,500 francs and advises her to return to London for a while.

On her arrival in London, Julia takes a room at a shabby hotel in Bloomsbury. What follows is a series of bruising encounters as Julia re-establishes contact with her family, most notably her sister, Norah and her Uncle Griffiths. In direct contrast to Julia, Norah has done the ‘right thing’ by staying at home to care for their invalid mother. Norah and Uncle Griffiths clearly disapprove of Julia’s decision to go her own way in Paris. (Julia had been married but subsequently left her husband. Uncle Griffiths is of the opinion that she ought to have extracted some kind of financial settlement from this man). Griffiths dismisses Julia with a one-pound note – he simply doesn’t care and wants little more to do with her.

Julia’s attempts to gain support from an ex-lover, Neil James, prove equally disheartening. James promises that he will send Julia some money so that she can have a little rest. In the end, he sends £20 and makes it clear that there will be no more handouts. Even Horsfield, now back in London, seems to be withdrawing his support. He seems to find her attractive one minute, unappealing the next. (Rhys also gives us access to Horsfield’s viewpoint from time to time.)

This is my second reading of Mr Mackenzie. It’s quite a difficult novel to describe, but I wanted to try to write about it before going on to read more of Rhys’ work. The writing is superb, the characters are complex and nuanced. Rhys appears to have mined her own past, her own experiences of the harsh reality of life as a lone woman in the city. Julia seems trapped; she is weary of life and drinks as a means of blunting the pain of her situation. Her life reads like a series of fragmented episodes, and there is little hope of a bright outlook. Rhys exposes the hypocrisy and cruelty of society at the time: no one seems to care about Julia; she is shunned by her family and acquaintances. Her predicament reminded me a little of the final stages of Lily Bart’s situation in The House of Mirth, another bruising and unforgettable story.

I have another couple of novels by Rhys: Voyage in the Dark and Good Morning, Midnight. I’d also like to read her first novel, Quartet.

I’m finding it difficult to describe the impact of reading After Leaving Mr Mackenzie – it’s a brilliant piece of work. I’ll finish with a quote that seems to capture something of Julia’s life, the constant swings from depression to glimmers of hope and back to despair once more:

She was crying now because she remembered that her life had been a long succession of humiliations and mistakes and pains and ridiculous efforts. Everybody’s life was like that. At the same time, in a miraculous manner, some essence of her was shooting upwards like a flame. She was great. She was a defiant flame shooting upwards not to plead but to threaten. Then the flame sank down again, useless, having reached nothing. (pg. 94-95)

After Leaving Mr Mackenzie is published in the UK by Penguin Modern Classics. Source: personal copy. Book 18/20 in my #TBR20.