Review: Voyage in the Dark by Jean Rhys

“I fell,” I said. “I fell for a hell of a long time then.”

I’ve read this beautiful, bruised, fizzling, dreamy novel four times. I’ve studied it and I’ve written on it for university. I’ve stared hard at the pages and tried to figure out just what about it is so special to me. Why I like it so much better than the other Rhys novels (this surely isn’t solely because it was my first.) Why something just about the words on the page looks beautiful to me, even when I cut out the meaning. The lyricism of the prose, the dreaminess of it, the shifting strangeness of it, and yet, its pared-down sparseness. It’s wistful but it is never flowery. It’s lean, but it is not cold, it is not bare. It isn’t lacking. There’s meat on those bones.

Anna. If you want to read the novels (excluding Wide Sargasso Sea) as a sequence—and acknowledging the autobiographical elements, the ages of the protagonists, the settings, it can be hard not to—then Anna kicks it off. Nineteen, at a loose end, displaced in almost every sense imaginable. Anna rides the tide, and when we join her she is at a low ebb. Sharing a boarding-house with her friend and fellow chorus-girl Maudie, she feels the contrast of the grey, labyrinthine streets of London with the abundant colours, flavours, scents of her childhood in the Caribbean intensely. The difference between hot and cold and colour and colourlessness is a motif that runs through the novel like a thread. Finding—not comfort exactly, but at least a place, in memory, in the past, Anna’s narrative is a jumbled-up soup of past and present, the witnessed and the remembered, and the half-imagined.

“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 feeling things gave you right down inside 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, I found when I was fifteen. I still remember that night. I remember walking halfway down the staircase to where my parents’ bookcase is fastened to the wall, and leaning over the bannister to survey the cracked paperbacks that gather dust there. Something made me choose Voyage in the Dark. Probably it was the slimness of it. I remember is sitting there on a step and flicking through the yellowed pages, finding my eyes gluing to the words, the slinky words that seemed to move on the page. Anna was sat on the sofa in that boarding-house in Southsea, and she was reading Nana. It was her voice that hooked me, and it has me hooked since.

So as Anna reads ‘a book about a tart’, we get to witness Anna’s ‘fall’, as she becomes what society would deem one, herself. Rhys rights those ‘lies’ Maudie is convinced a male author will write about a promiscuous female. In what faintly resembles a bildungsroman, we follow Anna’s progress: the loss of her virginity; her initiation into romantic relationships as transactional; a lifestyle of hotel rooms and other people’s husbands and taxis back to rented rooms; of money deposited into handbags and under pillows. It surprises Anna how quickly she adapts to this lifestyle; in particular, accepting money from her first lover, Walter, after sex.

“I was accustomed to it already. It was as if I had always had it. Money ought to be everybody’s. It ought to be like water. You can tell that because you get accustomed to it so quickly.” (p.24)

Anna is not a prostitute, but as an unmarried woman in 1914, she is treading a fine line. Not even a mistress, she is advised by her female friends to get from Walter whatever she can. Maudie recommends securing a piece of real estate or, failing that, a fur coat. Anna faces another kind of displacement: the loss of her, already tenuous, reputation. As in each of the four modernist Rhys novels, landladies are forever on hand to disapprove, glowering from doorways, throwing out accusations. By the time Anna finds herself with the American Carl, she has entered what Kristin Czarnecki calls ‘pseudo-prostitution’. She isn’t quite fallen yet, but she is falling, and it’s a steady, headlong fall.

I love the experimentalism of Voyage in the Dark. Not only does Anna remember the past in flashback form, as well as embedded in the past-tense narrative, she is able to fully submerge herself in the past. Explorations of childhood—the suffocation, the confusion, the great injustices a child perceives—are tapped into with this potency, this realness, which leaves me in awe. The racial tensions and colonial guilt that afflict Anna as a child and as a young adult remembering being a child, sit snug in the present day depiction of England. The reader follows Anna as she walks down a London street and soon afterwards is plunged into the Caribbean. The confusion, of that contrast, is very effective. The reader feels it as Anna does. Anna, who can never get warm because the warmth she remembers from her past is more than the actual.

The experimentalism in Voyage in the Dark is syntactical, too. In traumatic moments, such as a meeting with her stepmother Hester, or the final section of the book (I won’t reveal what it contains, because that would be too huge a spoiler), there is a loss of punctuation. In these scenes, the words run along and hit into each other like beads on a string. We see Hester’s blinding, festering rage, her racism, her jealousy, her contempt for Anna, as Anna perceives it: one big block of words, a wall of words, a full-on rant. In the final section of the book, Anna’s emotional state is matched by the barely-there language, commas and full-stops forgotten, a stream-of-consciousness narrative which slips, confusedly, into memory and then surfaces again.

It isn’t just the exploration of gender roles or colonialism in the novel which interests me, it’s the Jean in this novel, because I know there’s a lot of Jean in Anna, just like there is in Marya (Quartet), Julia (After Leaving Mr Mackenzie) and Sasha (Good Morning, Midnight). It’s senseless to deny the Jean in these novels (after all, writing, for her, was more than anything a kind of ‘therapy’), but to mistake these novels for absolute autobiography is also blinkered. Some people did—assigning life events to Rhys that only happened to her fictional counterparts. It was this, in part, that made her pen her autobiography. But there are autobiographical elements to each of the novels, cut and paste straight from Rhys’ life. And I like to see Anna as the one who sparks it off. She’s dark, she’s dismal at times. She’s young, she’s barely even started yet, but she already feels it’s too late for her. Yet, Anna doesn’t have the utter hopelessness, the despairing attitudes of the older heroines. She has some of youth’s ability of shrug off all the shit and start again. She is more trusting (though this allows her to be manipulated, pushed and prodded around), less closed off than the others. She is probably the most likable. And I feel that it is with Anna that we see the fullest journey, even if her journey is a fall. She does a lot of mooching around in bed and conquering insomnia with wine, like the others, but that’s not it for her. There’s more shape to her narrative. And because you see her go from innocence to experience, from virginity to sexualisation, from childhood to adulthood and back again, from good time to bad, from boarding-house to hotel room t0 boarding-house again, you are able to feel—or I at least feel—a greater connection to her. It’s impossible not to transform with her as she grows; to feel, second-hand, the knocks that life gives her.

The Day After, Edvard Munch, 1894-5

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I had to share this.

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Teaching My Mother How to Give Birth by Warsan Shire

Before I read this collection, I was familiar with Shire’s poetry through this piece and extracts I had seen on the internet. These tasters left me hungry for more, the same way catching the end of a song on the radio might make you want to search out the rest.
Shire’s writing has an immediacy and a potency that grips, whether in written or spoken form. The collection itself is relatively strong. Shire sings the body beautiful, but in rather broad strokes. From the overlapping perspectives of woman, Somalian, lover, daughter, immigrant, human–the poems are incredibly personal, and closely written, like having secrets whispered in your ear. Shire’s candidness is striking.
Some of the poems are powerful, but their effectiveness seems to lessen on each reread, rather than increase. One word comes to mind when considering TMMTGB and that is flashy. Flashy can be mistaken for brilliant at first glance (or listen), and certainly it knows how to work your senses. But as Shire shows all her best moves at the same time, there’s not a lot holding them together. I can’t deny the effectiveness of the collection, it’s just that, taking ideas away, they seem a little shallow. Immature, maybe. Beautiful word compositions over strong foundations.

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smuggled poem


Reading Aimee Herman’s To Go Without Blinking. Have a taster

Originally posted on Aimee Herman:

this poem is queer with white disco blood cells, turning over floor boards purchased from mice and roaches with a lineage of two hundred million years ago

do not lock lips with this poem because your bed sore against this lip sore could lead to the need for medication in the form of cream or humiliation

this poem has been diagnosed with HPV, gonorrhea, syphilis, ADD, chlamydia, candidiasis, scabies, herpes, cataracts, genital warts, PTSD, bacterial vaginosis

this poem votes Republican, but calls itself a Democrat or does not vote at all due to overactive sleep cycle, laziness and the ability to pick a side

this poem needs to hire an accountant to keep track of its sexual partners

this poem steals prescriptions from medicine cabinets and bedside tables

this poem is into course language, orgies, erections, blow jobs, humiliation and the word NO

this poem places pills in pockets for…

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Life Is Elsewhere by Milan Kundera


Life Is Elsewhere has been a three-, four- and five-star book. I couldn’t, and still can’t, make up my mind about it. At times I loved it, stopped at certain passages to marvel, to underline in order to remember later. Other times, I found myself rolling my eyes. By the end, I had to admit to myself that I was looking forward to finishing (the tell-tale signs: unconsciously skimming longer paragraphs; checking the page numbers to ascertain how many are left.) All in all, I’d say that, enjoyment and literary merit considered, this is a 3.5 for me. 

I only read Life Is Elsewhere because I’d recently read and adored The Book of Laughter and Forgetting. Apart from a few little things that niggled and irritated (these were magnified and harder to overlook in LIS, I think), the reading experience was utterly lovely. I had this sensation I don’t often get with books where, on reading an author for the first time, I feel a sense of recognition. Not necessarily anything to do with the content (i.e. the plot resembling some life event of mine), this recognition is with the writing itself (the style, the voice, its perspective on things). As with déjà vu, I feel I’ve been there before – but obviously, haven’t. It was a book I felt I had been waiting to read, like I had always known it would end up in my hands someday. Some books just do that, and it’s the nicest thing. So, for this reason, on finding another Kundera novel on my parents’ shelves, I couldn’t wait to get stuck in. 

In LIS, a poet is conceived, born, nurtured and adored. His childhood and his adulthood, his growth into poet, lover, political man, is a shared story, as much his mother’s as his. We begin with a conception and end with a death, and this is cleverly done. Kundera’s novel has a grandness to it, Jaromil the poet is The Poet, a figure at once candidly and closely drawn, cobbled together out of all the little and large experiences and influences that go about making a person, but is also distanced from, placed out of reach and made something more. At times he feels allegorical. Sometimes it felt as though Kundera was setting the poet up in a role not dissimilar to the gallant knight of an epic tale. This had much to do with Kundera’s presence in the text (as with TBOLAF). His frequent interjections into the narrative felt like an interruption, shaking up the text, disturbing the realness of a scene. These usually took the form of rhetorical questions, regarding character motivation, or else tried to set up Jaromil’s actions as something higher. The narrator repeatedly broke through what was otherwise described from a distance, and I found this bothersome. It felt incongruous against the intimate, more subtle narration of events elsewhere.

I didn’t always like the way LIS discussed sex and relationships. Assumptions the book made were reminiscent to me of Lawrence, at least in the way they made me feel uncomfortable. Does this mean I prefer it sugar-coated? Not at all. Hopeless and unromantic as Kundera’s depictions of sex could be (often with easy cruelty; at other times, every intimate act accompanied with some psychological explanation; and sometimes, sex as everything, some airy-fairy pursuit of truth), they didn’t feel especially like real life. In fact, it felt like Kundera trying to make his novel and its character weightier than they really were. Same with the author interjections. Shame, because beneath all that, the story is solid, without the need for every point to be wrung out and exhausted. I particularly enjoyed the descriptions of Jaromil’s childhood. The small politics of the classroom, a growing interest in literature, the transition from reader of poetry to writer of it, trying on the title of Poet like a hat, the pubescent boy’s dawning sexual awareness. There is a very knowing, wonderfully written section where the adolescent Jaromil decides he is in love with Madga, the maid in mourning with the ‘sorrow-lovely face’. He concocts a plan to watch her bathe. It is gloriously subtle section of the book, which really, despite its rigid chronology, has no real shape and is a thread of experiences, of which the seemingly inconsequential can have as much or more impact than the life-changing (a father in a concentration camp.) I loved the way Kundera was able to get into this young boy’s head. Jaromil’s total preoccupation with this act, the planning of it, the all-or-nothing importance it has to him. It felt real, I was able to believe in it. In this way, Kundera showed himself as a skilled, consummate and thoughtful writer, one who is able to zoom his lens in and out as easily as he achieves a panoramic sweep. 

I enjoyed the depiction of Maman’s loveless, dispiriting but not necessarily unhappy marriage, and of her love affair with the unnamed artist. It could so easily have been played as a rescue. And while it was a sexual awakening for Maman (her identity, even in this, always as a mother), the flaws in the pairing are evident. Maman sees herself as a reflection of what the artist wants to see. The artist begins to paint Maman, actually to paint her naked body, and she becomes a part of his art. Cleverly, the artist is described as a god of sorts, and Maman his creation. Maman is unhappy for it, or perhaps, since she has now known passion, unhappier than ever. She seemed to me a far richer, more interesting character than her son, and I don’t think it’s a coincidence that my interest began to wane around the time that Jaromil grew up and took centre-stage. However, the way mother and son’s stories were intertwined was well done. Too much of one of them would have called for a much smaller book. 

Flaws in the pacing, the rambling nature, the constant and obvious authorial insights, did not take away from the really rather lovely bones of this book. And, annoyed and indifferent as it made me at times, I’m glad I read it.

“The artist lavished attention on her and tried to draw her into the world of his paintings and thoughts. Maman liked that. It proved to her that their union was not merely a conspiracy of bodies exploiting a favorable situation.” 

“Éluard had become the poet of Magda’s calm body and of her eyes bathed by a sea of tears. He saw his entire life locked in the spell of a single line: sorrow-lovely face. Yes, that was Magda: sorrow-lovely face.” 

“At that point Maman really was little more than his image and his invention. She knew it, and she tried with all the self-control at her command to keep him from knowing it too, to keep him from realizing that she was not his partner, not a magical counterpart worthy of love, but only a lifeless reflection, an obedient looking glass, a passive surface on which he was projecting the images of his longing. She succeeded. The artist reached the climax of his joy and happily slid off her body. When she returned home, she felt as if she had undergone a great ordeal, and before going to sleep that night she wept.”

“She stood in the middle of the room and could think of nothing except her belly. She was afraid to look down but she saw it before his eyes as she knew it from a thousand desperate glances into the mirror.” 

“He was repelled by the pettiness that reduced life to mere existence and that turned men into half-men. He wanted to lay his life on a balance, the other side of which was weighted with death. He wanted to make his every action, every day, yes, every hour and minute worthy of being measured against the ultimate, which is death.” 

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The Solitary Summer by Elizabeth von Arnim


The opening paragraph was the best thing about the book.

I want to be alone for a whole summer, and get to the very dregs of life. I want to be as idle as I can, so that my soul may have time to grow. Nobody shall be invited to stay with me, and if any one calls they will be told that I am out, or away, or sick. I shall spend the months in the garden, and on the plain, and in the forests. I shall watch the things that happen in my garden, and see where I have made mistakes. On wet days I will go into the thickest parts of the forests, where the pine needles are everlastingly dry, and when the sun shines I’ll lie on the heath and see how the broom flares against the clouds. I shall be perpetually happy, because there will be no one to worry me. Out there on the plain there is silence, and where there is silence I have discovered there is peace.

A strange story. I never quite knew what it was getting at, but it was very prettily written. Lush, lyrical writing. The garden was full and alive, but the characters who inhabited it felt lifeless by comparison. I enjoyed the narrator’s discussion of literature, especially the way she linked her reading to the natural landscape. But, that wasn’t enough. I feel like I will forget about this book quickly.

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Love Poems by Anne Sexton

3.5 stars

On the day of breasts and small hips,
the window pocked with bad rain,
rain coming on like a minister,
we coupled, so sane and insane. 
We lay like spoons while the sinister
rain dropped like flies on our lips
and our glad eyes and our small hips.

“The room is so cold with rain,” you said
and you, feminine you, with your flower
said novenas to my ankles and elbows.
You are a national product and power.
Oh my swan, my drudge, my dear wooly rose,
even a notary would notarize our bed
as you knead me and I rise like bread.

(‘Song for a Lady’)

Another inconsistent collection from Anne Sexton. Apart from To Bedlam and Part Way Back, which was faultless from cover to cover, I find Sexton to be a very hit-and-miss poet. But when she succeeds, you don’t remember the lines that don’t work. It’s skin-tingling brilliance. I’d forgiven her anything, reading those lines that stick to you and don’t shake off. I’d even forgive her her sometimes odd, arbitrary choice of words, which reek of style over substance (and at other times are just weird: ‘cat-green ice’?) Sexton is personal, intimate, to the point of suffocation, but it is incredibly effective. I love her honesty. I love her stripped back, unflinching approach to writing about herself, her body, her lovers and their bodies. 

Fragments / love for Sexton’s love poems:

My mouth blooms like a cut


The end of the affair is always death.


At night, alone, I marry the bed.


I give you back your heart. / I give you permission – 

for the fuse inside her, throbbing / angrily in the dirt, for the bitch in her / for the burying of her wound – / for the burying of her small red wound alive – 


She is so naked and singular. / She is the sum of yourself and your dream. / Climb her like a monument, step after step. / She is solid.

As for me, I am watercolor. / I wash off.


Look, / when it is over he places her, / like a phone, back on the hook.


Loving me with my shoes off, / means loving my long brown legs, / sweet dears, as good as spoons; / and my feet, those two children / let out to play naked.


Darling, you will yield up your belly and be / cored like an apple.


Notice how he has numbered the blue veins / in my breast. Moreover there are ten freckles. / Now he goes left. Now he goes right. / He is building a city, a city of flesh.


Being kissed on the back / of the knee is a moth / at the windowscreen


We are bare. We are stripped to the bone / and we swim in tandem and go up and up / the river, the identical river called Mine / and we enter together. No one’s alone.


Yesterday I did not want to be borrowed / but this is the typewriter that sits before me / and love is where yesterday is at. 

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