Once upon a time I was an undergrad Arts student. I was going to study English and History. One of my first semester English classes was Modern Literature. I had no idea ‘modern’ was a critical term rather than just a temporal one; I had never done any literary theory or real critique. I discovered that I loved Orlando (Virginia Woolf) and could barely keep my eyes open for Dubliners (James Joyce); I was captivated by Heart of Darkness (Joseph Conrad) and finally watched Apocalypse Now as a result. And I read Good Morning, Midnight and I don’t even really remember the story but I remember being absolutely bowled over by Jean Rhys. I later read Wide Sargasso Sea (because I kinda do love Jane Eyre) and was astonished all over again.
Some years later I supported The Second Shelf in their Kickstarter, and as part of my reward I got a first edition of Sleep it Off Lady, a collection of Rhys’ short stories. This was a pretty great result for me, since I had let her fall off my radar, and now I could re-discover this writer that A. Alvarez in 1974 called “quite simply the best living English novelist”.
In some ways I don’t really know how to talk about this collection. They are, by and large, realist fiction – and most are more along the vignette line, rather than having fully developed narratives. But all of them comment on some aspect of life, or relationships, or social interactions. And none of them have superfluous words and none of them are sentimental and all of them left me thinking about what life is like.
“Pioneers, Oh, Pioneers” is set on a Caribbean island, where Rhys grew up; from the perspective of a young girl we get a view on how the Europeans might view another European who doesn’t really match their idea of how a European man should act.
“Goodby Marcus, Goodbye Rose” is also set on a Caribbean island, again told from the perspective of a young girl… whose innocence and expectations of an ordinary life are basically removed when an old man grabs her breast.
Some of the vignettes are reflections on being a young woman in the pre- and inter-war years in Britain, or Paris. And several are haunting reflections on getting old, as a woman, and how people might view you, and how you might view yourself.
This is a really short collection and all of the stories are short, too. They pack an immense punch and they will definitely be re-read.