It’s hard to believe three years have passed since I first started this book blog. I’m amazed at the opportunities it’s opened up for me to engage with other passionate readers, interact with authors personally and celebrate literature I love. Some highlights from the past year include being a judge on the Green Carnation Prize, joining rambunctious reader extraordinaire Simon of Savidge Reads to form the Baileys Bearded Book Club, fabulous feminist Naomi of The Writes of Women in shadowing the Baileys Prize and insightful reader of classic fiction Jacqui of JacquiWine’s Journal to organize a Jean Rhys Reading Week. It’s also been interesting starting a booktube channel recently to speak about books on video and finding on Youtube a whole new community of readers to interact with online.

It was a pleasure and thrill being asked to interview Zadie Smith about her excellent forthcoming novel “Swing Time” at the beginning of August. This coming week I’m looking forward to chairing an evening with Baileys Prize and Desmond Eliot Prize winner Lisa McInerney alongside other prize winning authors Andrew Hurley and Jessie Greengrass at Waterstones Tottenham Court Road. Details and ticket info are here if you’d like to come along! It’d be wonderful to see you there. I’m also being commissioned to write articles about literature for publishers. So these things mean I’m earning a bit of money for the first time by talking about books and writing about books. This blog has always just been a passion project I do in my spare time so it’s a nice extra validation to be getting this work.

However, the biggest honour this year and probably the biggest honour of my whole life was when Joyce Carol Oates dedicated her new book “Soul at the White Heat” to me. If you’ve read my blog much or know me at all you’ll know she’s my absolute favourite writer. She’s a supreme artist and genius so it’s truly humbling receiving this dedication. It’s also particularly poignant that this is a collection of nonfiction about the writing life and Oates’ own passion for reading classic and contemporary fiction. Readers are kindred spirits and though reading is a solitary act just patiently engaging with a book connects you to a whole community of invisible readers.

To twist a famous phrase by Virginia Woolf, it’s important to have a virtual space of one’s own. Now more than ever before anyone with access to the internet can make themselves heard by creating a blog or starting an account on social media. It’s important to say what you think and express what you’re most passionate about. It’s also vital that we really listen to each other and exchange ideas instead of closing ourselves off to opinions other than our own. This week I read Donal Ryan’s brilliant new novel “All We Shall Know” and in it he writes “People get wicked vexed unless you agree away with them. There’s no countenancing argument any more.” It feels increasingly that people in politics and the media shout things and want others to simply agree with them. But we need to challenge each other and be challenged ourselves if we’re going to really converse and grow. Otherwise, it’s just noise. 

Thank you for reading my book blog. So, have you read anything good lately? 

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
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Donal Ryan's writing has an elegance and depth of feeling which is so rare. I was incredibly moved reading his novel “The Thing About December” and his short story collection “A Slanting of the Sun.” But his new novel “All We Shall Know” actually had me crying in some scenes – and that happens very rarely when I'm reading. It's also not often I'll turn the last page of a novel and say 'Wow!' Not only does Ryan completely draw the reader into the narrator Melody's dilemma (a thirty-three year old married woman who is pregnant from her younger student) and create a suspenseful story of broken families and conflicts within the Traveller community in Ireland, but his writing is also stunningly beautiful. The chapter headings in this novel chart the weeks of Melody's pregnancy. As the baby grows, the crisis of her situation becomes more alarming. This is a powerful novel about relationships, guilt and betrayal.

Melody is a undeniably a difficult individual. She even eagerly strives to convince people of her hardness: “I’m bad, for sure. There’s no kindness in me.” She's become pregnant by a teenage Traveller named Martin who is the son of a very influential member of his community. Her husband Pat is unsentimentally informed of this fact and leaves her. Now she's scorned by her neighbours and maintains a bleak uncharitable outlook: “What heart matters? I felt like saying to her, but didn’t. No heart matters to this mechanical unrolling of happenings, this blinding spearing time. We’re all tied to the tracks.” She becomes bogged down in mulling over the past, her mother's early death, her tumultuous marriage and guilt over her childhood friend Breedie who she betrayed. However, she strikes up an unlikely friendship with another young Traveller named Mary Crothery who she also tutors. Through Mary, she becomes engaged with something more than the obsessive memories which orbit her.

The marriage between Melody and Pat broke down over a long period of time since they first became a couple when they were teenagers. Ryan is so skilful at conveying the alternating hope and despair of their situation as they struggle to have a child. Their bond becomes so powerful that Melody feels “We merged over time into one person, I think, and it's easy to be cruel to oneself.” It's always struck me as baffling that couples can act so viciously to one another. But this one short line captures so powerfully the intense closeness formed in a relationship and why you can feel compelled to hurt the person you love the most – because that person is like a part of you.

An Irish Traveller watches neighbouring children play from her trailer window. (Photo: Mackenzie Reiss)

An Irish Traveller watches neighbouring children play from her trailer window. (Photo: Mackenzie Reiss)

Readers might become frustrated by Melody's unrelenting coldhearted actions, but a key to understanding her steely nature is her broken friendship with teenage friend Breedie. She was a girl with some dark, difficult secrets who Melody turned her back on for the sake of social acceptance. When reading this book it was these scenes which really hit me at the core and made my eyes water. This teenage cruelty felt entirely realistic to me. Melody's life since then might be a protracted act of self sabotage as this is the relationship she earned only through betraying her closest friend. Her involvement with the dangerous politics of Martin and Mary's community could be her penance.

I want to stress the novel isn't all bleakness and gloom. There are touches of an edgy humour scattered throughout. In one scene Melody senses she's being overlooked by a nosy neighbour and muses “Someone was looking back from a house directly across and down a bit, towards the bend. Mrs Brannigan. Or Flanagan. Or some-fucking-thingagan.” There is a lot of poking fun at the ridiculously gossip-driven community and how no one can mind their own business. Unsurprisingly, a lot of this talk ends up perpetuating and worsening problems.

Donal Ryan has a talent for spinning dramatic tales that shine with heart and wisdom and leave you feeling as if you've fully experienced his characters' lives. “All We Shall Know” is a book of supreme craftsmanship and deep emotion.

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
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In the past when I’ve set myself a goal to read a large amount of a single writer’s books it’s only been a solitary personal challenge. But the Jean Rhys Reading Week which thoughtful reviewer Jacqui of JacquiWine’s Journal invited me to co-host with her was the first online ReadAlong I’ve participated in. With the wonderful help of Poppy Peacock and Margaret Reardon we managed to read and write our personal responses to the majority of Jean Rhys’ novels, stories and autobiographical writing.

The enthusiasm from readers everywhere who joined in the week has been tremendous with many people posting their own reviews of Rhys’ books, responding to our blog posts and writing their thoughts on Twitter with the #ReadingRhys hashtag & in our GoodReads Group. Reading the wide variety of opinions and responses to Rhys’ books has really helped me think more complexly about this fascinating writer’s output.

Here is a short round up of some wonderful responses to books that I covered.

I began the week writing about “Good Morning, Midnight” which Margaret Reardon also gave a fascinating perspective of later in the week. David’s Book World commented on the way memories emerge stronger than Sasha’s present reality which draws us into her true experience. Caroline at Book Word remarked on where the novel stands in Rhys’ oeuvre, what other writers have observed about it and the shocking aspects of the book. Karen commented on how surprisingly soothing this novel can be for someone dealing with social anxiety.

I posted about “Voyage in the Dark” which is based heavily on Rhys’ own young adulthood living in London. It proved to be a popular choice to read (perhaps because Jacqui reviewed it earlier this year as well.) Rough Ghosts remarked on the difficulty of Anna as a character, her believability and made poignant personal reflections about the subject matter this novel raises. Claire at Word by Word makes interesting remarks about Anna’s Caribbean heritage. Max at Pechorin’s Journal makes interesting remarks about Anna’s unique personality and depression. Grant at 1st Reading remarked how the reader is given moment to moment access to Anna’s thoughts and feelings and the novel’s enduring relevance. Abby King commends the way that the novel deals with complex issues such as depression, colonialism, gender and class. Simon at Stuck in a Book noticed how the novel fuses comedy and tragedy in a way that is particular to some interwar novels.

Writer Emma Healey on Instagram

Writer Emma Healey on Instagram

I next considered what is probably Jean Rhys’ most famous novel “Wide Sargasso Sea” – with its connection to “Jane Eyre” it’s put on a lot of literature syllabuses. Nargis Walker gives a fascinating commentary on the novel and compares it to “Jane Eyre” in an enlightening way. Joyce Carol Oates also compares these two novels in an enlightening way in this article. Cathy at 746 Books noted the deeply political nature of this novel. Whereas Lady Fancifull admires the beauty, fluidity and depth of the writing. In comments and in our GoodReads group some people expressed reservations about reading this novel since it uses a pre-existing character, but the general consensus seems to be that Rhys makes Antoinette so entirely her own this prequel is entirely warranted.

Finally, I posted about “Smile Please” Jean Rhys’ unfinished autobiography about growing up in Dominica and moving to England. It’s particularly interesting reading her straightforward account of her life as so many parts of it were embedded in her fiction. BiisBooks commented on how much lighter the stories in Rhys' autobiographical writing is as opposed to her darker fiction. Whereas, Marina at FindingTimetoWrite discussed the rawness and immediacy of her writing in this book.

We're awarding a special Jean Rhys prize bundle (courtesy of Penguin Classics) to Dorian who wrote this excellent article about his experiences teaching Jean Rhys to students and their reactions which really gets to the heart of Rhys' writing. I hope discussions will still continue on our GoodReads Group and Twitter. I’d like to continue reading more of her novels and stories that I didn’t have time to cover during the reading week. It’s particularly timely to be reading Rhys now as Penguin Classic is republishing some of her work. They’ve been a great supporter of the week. Thank you to everyone who has participated and a special thanks to Jacqui for inviting me organize the week with her. It’s been great fun!

Now for a big question: if I were to run another reading week what author should I choose? Any ideas?

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The books in the graphic memoir series “The Arab of the Future” make me feel like a child about to read the new Harry Potter or see the new Star Wars film. I look forward to them with so much anticipation and read each new volume immediately. The second volume is published in the UK this week! These books are such a joy to read for their lively and expressive drawings and engaging stories that present the author's wide-eyed innocent look at his cross-national childhood. In this volume his family move back to Syria (the place of his father's birth) when Riad is six years old. He goes to school for the first time learning Arabic from his tyrannical teacher and French from his mother at home. Meanwhile his professor father claims he'll build his wife and children a palatial home on a desolate plot of land they own, but as the time ticks by no progress is made. Sattouf presents his family and experiences with wit, humour, intelligence and great emotion.

This volume continues to give a fascinating view of what it was like growing up in a country under what's effectively a military dictatorship that is in perpetual conflict with the Israelis. Leader Hafez al-Assad holds elections but he's the only candidate on the ballot and the population is cowed into voting yes for him – in a memorable scene Riad's teacher orders her students to tell their parents to vote for their leader. What's particularly chilling about the teacher is the way he draws her so sweetly smiling one moment and horrendously enraged the next. She punishes them severely hitting the palms of the children's hands with a stick whenever they fail to comply to arbitrary rules such as wearing the correct uniform or bringing in a regulation size Quran. It's particularly cruel when she beats poor unclean boys who don't have the facilities to wash properly. Yet, Sattouf shows this woman's humanity as well in a scene where they children are ordered to imitate the sound of rain by tapping their fingers and she bursts into tears which gives an indication of her untold personal sorrows.

Meanwhile, on the playground the children parrot the nationalistic/religious dogma learned from their families and government while playing games where the objective is to kill all their Jewish enemies. In a way, the children portrayed are more terrifying than the adults as some look upon Riad with icy hard hatred for no apparent reason. This is especially frightening when his parents visit friends or relatives whose own children look pleasant when they are with the adults but turn mercilessly sadistic when left alone with Riad. Sattouf draws these scenes so well where you can see the hatred brewing within the characters’ faces as they stare at Riad as a boy. With his long blonde hair he stands out amongst the children who call him Jewish as an insult (even though his family is not).

Alongside the flagrant anti-Semitism expressed by people around him, there are horrific examples of misogyny from many characters. This is found in every day life where visits to family or friends entail the women preparing food which is only eaten by them after the men have finished or in offhanded remarks from Riad’s father and friends who claim women are stupid or difficult. Even more horrendously, Riad overhears his father describe how a woman is killed because she became pregnant outside of marriage. Shockingly, he expresses uncertainty to Riad’s mother about whether it should be reported.

This ambivalence exemplifies an ongoing internal conflict with Riad’s father which has been evident since the first book. He’s a man eager for progress, yet he capitulates to the dominant repressive ideologies around him. Over the course of these two books, I’ve come to feel very involved and concerned about what will happen to Riad’s father and mother. I’m amazed his mother puts up with the father’s attitudes, treatment of her and the difficult conditions she’s forced to live under. Of course, his father has a very tender side too. In some scenes he demonstrates how he’s also capable of great kindness and he occasionally reflects on difficult memories with Riad. This all makes me very keen to see what happens to his parents’ relationship.

The family goes to visit the father’s friend who is a General in the Syrian army and his grand home is shown to be full of cracks. Just like his mansion, this is a culture with many unconvincing facades. Sattouf sensitively shows how the social imbalances and rigidly enforced moralities are a result of people living under a government regime which does not tolerate any different or dissident opinions that conflict with the prevailing order. I’m absolutely gripped now and can’t wait to read the third volume of this striking and original memoir.

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
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It’s absolutely fascinating reading about Jean Rhys’ life directly from the source – especially after recently revisiting a group of her novels in this Jean Rhys Reading Week. So many of her recurrent themes and ideas are laid out bare here for the reader to understand her experiences and how she felt about them in her own words. Unfortunately, we only get her life story up until her initial time in Paris with her first husband when the chapters turn more into anecdotal sketches or cryptic diary entries for what would have come if Rhys had lived long enough to complete the book. Nevertheless, reading about Rhys’ early life is utterly compelling. The book has an excellent preface by her editor Diana Athill which explains how difficult the writing/editing process was for Rhys, her perfectionism and the development of this unfinished book in the final years of Rhys’ life. Apparently at the time there was a lot of speculation surrounding Rhys’ origins and her life in relation to her work; this was her attempt to set the record straight. Consequently, “Smile Please” gives exciting insights into Rhys’ novels as well as being a beautifully written and oftentimes startling memoir in its own right.

Since I’m freshly familiar with Rhys’ fiction it was a strange sensation reading about Rhys’ straightforward recollections of her early life. Personally, I always resist reading fiction as a veiled form autobiography. Certainly an author’s experiences often informs their fiction, but the artistic process of distilling life into a story is so complex I think its best to mostly enjoy prose fiction on its own. Yet, one can’t read Rhys’ novels with their frank portrayals of women’s difficult lives and inner turmoil (particularly if you read her novels all together) and not instinctively feel that these women are (in large part) Rhys herself. So it’s somewhat of a relief to read about details of Rhys’ early life that confirm what a reader of her fiction suspects as being true.

For instance, Rhys was highly aware of her family’s precarious social standing amongst some of the black population of Dominica and the conflicts they encountered. She was particularly troubled by a nurse named Meta who become such an antagonist to Rhys with her verbal and physical punishments that she states “Meta had shown me a world of fear and distrust, and I am still in that world.” This gives me a very haunting feeling when thinking about Rhys’ characters who are so filled with suspicion and retreat from conflict or difficult situations with others. Also, she writes “It was Meta who talked so much about zombies, soucriants, and loup-garoux.” These mythological beings obviously made a strong impact upon Rhys’ imagination as they loom large in her novels in moments of crisis such as descriptions in “Wide Sargasso Sea” or towards the end of “Voyage in the Dark”. Equally, this novel echoes Rhys’ desire to change her skin colour. Her character Anna states “I wanted to be black. I always wanted to be black.” and Rhys writes in her memoir: “Once I heard her say that black babies were prettier than white ones. Was this the reason why I prayed so ardently to be black, and would run to the looking-glass in the morning to see if the miracle had happened?” Frequently while reading “Smile Please” I felt a chime of understanding that what I read in Rhys’ fiction had in fact come straight out of her heart.

There are passages of intense feeling such as when she describes how beautiful her native country was but how she felt it rejected her. On another occasion she tries to befriend a striking older black girl who sits next to her in class only to receive her absolute contempt. Her feelings about Rhys didn’t even need to be verbalized as Rhys asserts “if you think that a child cannot recognise hatred and remember it for life you are most damnably mistaken.” Clearly these painful memories have hounded Rhys throughout her life and found expression in her psychically-wounded characters. Later in her life in London when she works as a chorus girl she starts going with men who she is initially repulsed by, but later she develops intense feelings for them. Again, this is very consistent with Anna’s experiences in “Voyage in the Dark” whose protagonist has recently arrived in England from an upbringing in the Caribbean following the same timeline of much of “Smile Please”.

Other sections of this memoir come as a surprise. For instance, it’s curious to learn that there was a period of Rhys’ life when she attended a Catholic school and desired for a time to become a nun. Religious sentiment showed up again later in her life even though she felt herself to be a total atheist. When her first child becomes terminally ill shortly after his birth while she’s living with her first husband Jean in Paris, she experiences an intense wish for him to be baptised. I can see how these complicated feelings about losing a child filtered into her writing "Good Morning, Midnight". A somewhat humorous discovery is Rhys’ descriptions of being hired by families in Paris - not exactly as a nanny - but just to speak to their children in English. One of these engagements proved to be one of Rhys’ few truly happy experiences and another turned into a calamitous disaster.

Jean Rhys looking chic in Vienna

Jean Rhys looking chic in Vienna

A really touching section comes when Rhys describes her time renting an apartment in London and becoming entranced with writing diaries in notebooks in an all-consuming way. She becomes so enraptured with getting her experiences and thoughts down she stays up all night writing, pacing, crying and laughing to herself. She doesn’t realize how disruptive she’s being until the landlady tells her she’s received complaints, but Rhys is entirely unapologetic about her behaviour. I can so vividly picture Rhys’ emotional writing process and the awkward encounters that ensued from her bothering those around her as the words spilled out onto innumerable pages. What a challenging tenant Rhys must have been! Landladies generally didn’t like Rhys and she didn’t like them.

What comes through most powerfully in this memoir is Rhys’ inner sense of utter estrangement from men, women, black people, her family, the Caribbean, England and society in general (although outwardly she appeared to be quite social.) She states “I am a stranger and I always will be, and after all I didn’t really care… I wanted nothing.” Given her sense of total alienation it’s not surprising that she and her characters were so prone to despair. It led her to want nothing but to recline in bed simply existing while fretting about the years and years she’d have to endure ahead of her. What irony that Rhys lived to the late age of eighty-eight! Even if she claimed to be unimpressed by the resurged interest in her writing immediately prior to and following the publication of “Wide Sargasso Sea” I can’t help feeling she must have found it in some ways deeply satisfying.

It’s a shame that “Smile Please” wasn’t completed – particularly in how it would have given a fuller picture of her adult writing life and her interactions with the literary community. We only get a hint of her introduction to Ford Madox Ford at the end. But these early chapters are gems of rough-hewn beauty which can be greatly enjoyed and treasured.

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
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“Wide Sargasso Sea” is probably Jean Rhys’ most famous novel as it is widely taught in literature courses. It’s seen as an important novel for being a prequel to Charlotte Brontë’s “Jane Eyre” by imagining the life of Bertha Antoinetta Mason (the famous mad woman in the attic/first Mrs Rochester at Thornfield Hall). It’s also hailed as an important work of postcolonial literature for its portrayal of Antoinette’s conflicted sense of national/racial identity as her husband is repulsed and rejects her Creole heritage leading to her descent into madness. I read this novel considering these aspects many years ago, but it’s been such a pleasure revisiting it alongside Rhys’ earlier novels as they share or provide a different perspective on many of its ideas, themes and characters. For instance, Antoinette’s claim that “I often stay in bed all day” echoes closely Anna in “Voyage in the Dark” who often does the same. In addition, Antoinette’s Caribbean upbringing is so clearly twined with Rhys’ own childhood in the island of Dominica. This makes “Wide Sargasso Sea” a fascinating encapsulation of much of the material Rhys was working out in her writing throughout her entire life. It’s tremendously moving to think how Rhys came to identify with Brontë’s slighted “mad woman” when her second husband gave her a copy of “Jane Eyre” to read. In the decades between the publication of her previous novel “Good Morning, Midnight” in 1939 and the eventual publication of “Wide Sargasso Sea” in 1966, Rhys laboured to formulate this story by writing many drafts and perfecting the language. The result is a stunning slender novel that stands as the crowning achievement of Rhys’ literary career.

The first third of the novel is about Antoinette’s Jamaican childhood. It’s filled with vibrant invocations of the sensations and social makeup of this racially-divided community. She and her mother live reclusively in the run-down house after the death of her father. But one day her mother marries again and, though they live in relative harmony, the racial tension increases as resentment against the family grows. One tense night their house is set upon and burnt to the ground leading to the tragic death of Antoinette’s disabled brother. This event foreshadows what is to come many years later when Antoinette lives as a virtual prisoner in Thornfield Hall and resolves to burn it down. These destructions of home are physical expressions of the untenable existence of their inhabitants. In Jamaica, the house was burnt because some of the island’s black community were showing this Creole family (whose forefathers owned slaves) that they don’t belong. It leads Antoinette to feel “I often wonder who I am and where is my country and where do I belong and why was I ever born at all.” This anxiety can be felt throughout all of Jean Rhys’ writing, but in this novel it gives a kind of logic to her eventual destruction of Thornfield Hall because it’s somewhere she clearly feels like she doesn’t belong. It’s her way of shattering what she views to be an illusion.

After the destruction of her family’s Jamaican home her mother suffers from mental instability and she is sequestered in a sanatorium. Antoinette’s future is ambivalent, but in the second part we learn an unnamed English gentleman has come to marry her as the marriage comes with a large dowry. Here Rhys narrates from a man’s perspective which is highly uncommon in her fiction. We get his cold-minded blunt thoughts about this marriage of convenience: “I did not love her. I was thirsty for her, but that is not love. I felt very little tenderness for her, she was a stranger to me, a stranger who did not think or feel as I did.” Because he cannot understand her or life on the island, he grows increasingly estranged and mistrustful. A man named Daniel begins sending him letters making accusations about madness in Antoinette’s family and Antoinette’s old nurse Christophine expresses her mistrust of him and plies him with her Obeah potions making him violently ill. In a weakened delusional state he comes to feel that “it seemed everything around me was hostile. The telescope drew away and said don't touch me. The trees were threatening.” This curiously echoes the wild fantasies and paranoia of Anna in “Voyage in the Dark” when she becomes seriously ill towards the end of that novel. It also leads him to abandon Island life and return to England, especially after his father and brother’s death lead him to inheriting the family fortune and stately home.

You can visit the attic in the stately home Norton Conveyers which inspired Charlotte Bronte after she heard stories of a woman known as "Mad Mary" who was confined here.

You can visit the attic in the stately home Norton Conveyers which inspired Charlotte Bronte after she heard stories of a woman known as "Mad Mary" who was confined here.

The short third part of this novel shifts to Grace who is charged with caring for Antoinette (renamed Bertha by her husband) while she’s hidden away in Thornfield Hall. For Antoinette, the England she experiences does not match the England in her mind. Throughout the novel the reality of England is questioned. Antoinette states early on that an island friend who now lives in England writes her that “London is a cold dark dream sometimes. I want to wake up.” Christophine questions whether England even exists because she’s never seen it. And when Antoinette sneaks out of her attic prison in the evenings she feels “This cardboard house where I walk at night is not England.” The reality of the country can never match its mythological status in the minds of these people from the Caribbean. In his frenzied state of mind Antoinette’s husband comes to find “suddenly, bewilderingly, I was certain that everything I had imagined to be truth was false. False. Only the magic and the dream are true – all the rest's a lie.” Such a revelation also seems to come to Antoinette who seeks to destroy the lie of the life around her with fire.

While “Wide Sargasso Sea” has a beautiful artfulness to it, I slightly missed the raw feeling of Rhys’ earlier novels which in some ways seem like more a pure expression of her state of being. She set herself the noble task of telling Antoinette’s story to show the potential full complexity of a character that is often thought of dismissingly as simply the “mad woman in the attic.” But, whatever nuance she gave to her back story, Antoinette had to suffer the same fate as Brontë’s character. This inhibits the story in a way, but it also allowed Rhys the freedom to fully explore the complicated aspects of identity she’d been writing about for years by going back to the Caribbean in her fiction. It feels like a disservice to Rhys that this novel is often only read in isolation because I think I understand it so much better seeing it in relation to her other writing. I think of it more like a crystallization of her life’s work. Being part of this Jean Rhys Reading Week has shown me what beautiful variations Rhys created in her short powerful novels to expound upon her preoccupations and unique perspective about life. I hope that this week has done a little to encourage people to see in Jean Rhys’ other books that there is so much more to her writing than only “Wide Sargasso Sea”.

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
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I’ve read and admired short fiction by Robert Olen Butler in the past so I was highly intrigued to read his new novel “Perfume River”. The story is centres around brothers Robert and Jimmy who have been separated for almost fifty years. When they were both young men they were pressured by their domineering pro-war father William to fight. Robert enlisted for a non-combat position to avoid causing any bloodshed himself, but he inevitably became entangled in conflict. Jimmy chose to move to Canada and pursue an open relationship within a commune. Ideological divisions have torn this family apart, but when elderly William is seriously injured in 2015 the family comes together again to lay old grievances to rest. This is an elegiac, thoughtful novel which shows the long-term deleterious effects war has upon families, the complex intensity of lifelong relationships and the real meaning of masculinity.

Hovering at the edges of this family drama is a homeless man named Bob. Robert occasionally buys him meals. He seems to suffer from a kind of schizophrenia and frequently has trouble separating his present reality from past emotionally damaging encounters he had with his aggressive father Calvin. Butler inhabits his skewed perspective of the world so powerfully – especially in the way Bob has an awareness of how he’s perceived by other people and their assumptions about him. Since Bob shares a name with the protagonist Robert there is a strange mirror effect which occurs between these men of different ages who have ended up in very different places in their lives. The tensions which play out in their psyches eventually reach a crisis point in a dramatic confrontation.

Robert’s wife Darla who teaches art theory engaged in antiwar protests during the Vietnam war arguing with her father that it’s naïve to think the country will become a “puppet state for the Chinese.” She met Robert during her demonstrations and she has since gone on to meditate on the meaning of military aggression and the pride men feel about engaging in acts of warfare. There are a lot of touching scenes where the couple’s close contact is described: “They are so very familiar with each other. And that familiarity has become the presiding expression of their intimacy.” Butler gets so well the special kind of energy and space created within a long-term relationship and how this expresses itself physically with contact taking on a curious kind of timidity. Their familiarity is such that communication is mostly non-verbal and there are multiple unspoken understandings between them. This is in contrast to Robert’s brother Jimmy and his partner Linda who have an open relationship because they believe “Love on this earth is not a singularity. It is a profusion.” The author explores the positive and negative aspects of these different approaches to long term relationships and meaningfully shows how no arrangement is ideal.

"Charlton Heston. Bob's old man loved this guy. Moses the gunslinger."

"Charlton Heston. Bob's old man loved this guy. Moses the gunslinger."

The close lifelong partnership Darla shares with Robert is haunted by the hidden truth about what he encountered in Vietnam – both a tragic incident that occurred and the woman he fell in love with. It’s movingly described how Robert tries to keep these memories to himself: “Robert blinds hard against the memory. He will not let certain things in.” Butler really has a special talent for writing about the way memories wash over people. Thoughts/feelings about the past meld into their present day lives in such a seamless organic way it really represents the way the present can be veiled by the past. This is metaphorically represented by the heavily scented river Robert encountered in Vietnam and how sensory experience triggers emotions in the mind taking an individual out of the present moment.

At the heart of this novel are questions about what forms our identities and to what degree we’re pledged to our family, friends or country. This long passage poignantly summarizes this debate: “your interests and tastes, ideas and values, personalities and character – the things that truly make up who you are – shift and change and disconnect. Indeed, it’s harder for friends to part: you came together at all only because those things were once compatible. With your kin, that compatibility may never even have existed. The same is true of a country. You didn’t choose your parents. You didn’t choose your land of birth. If you and they have nothing in common, if they have nothing to do with who you are now, if you are always, irrevocably at odds with each other, is it betrayal simply to leave family and country behind? No. Fuck no.” The consequences of this rallying statement about asserting the right to form your own identity apart from your roots is played out in Jimmy’s actions. But the novel contrasts how making such a radical decision involves compromises which are different from the ones made by Robert who chose to remain in his country and keep in close contact with their family.

“Perfume River” is such a beautifully written novel and movingly shows that there are no easy answers to these larger questions – particularly when it comes to acts of war between nations and between family members.

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
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