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Saturday, March 20th, 2004


 

Good Morning, Midnight

by Jean Rhys

A review by Jill Owens

Jean Rhys has an affinity for mercurial heroines; her famed novel Wide Sargasso Sea gave a voice and a history to Mrs. Rochester, the "mad" first wife of Mr. Rochester in Jane Eyre. In Good Morning, Midnight, she explores a more claustrophobic kind of exile in Sasha Jensen, who has been sent back to Paris at the behest (and expense) of a friend as an alternative to her alcoholic amnesia in London. Aimless, Sasha wanders through Paris, the site of the dissolution of her marriage and the death of her child, trying halfheartedly to reestablish a life.

Sasha's past, with its memories of extreme poverty, love, and betrayal, threads its way through her present (she studiously avoids, then drunkenly confronts, certain cafés, neighborhoods, bit characters from her previous life in Paris). One of the strongest impressions the reader takes from Sasha's reflections is a feeling of great solitude, a mind jolting around in its own skull. Sasha is both trivial and fatalistic; because she cares deeply about nothing, because she can become almost paralyzed with anxiety at social contact, she creates a localized power over her immediate surroundings and a frenetic and unstable control over her life.

Physical spaces are a recurring presence in the book -- rooms, streets, bars, restaurants; Sasha seems to see external places as both interchangeable and animated: "'Quite like old times,' the room says. 'Yes? No?'" Rhys is adept at a haunting blend of detail and abstraction, and the rooms of London and Paris, the past and the future, create a sense of inevitability -- of the absence of free will -- that characterizes most of Sasha's obsessions.

This is not to say that the novel is an overwhelmingly bleak experience. Rhys's wry humor is reminiscent of Beckett's, and Sasha is an intelligent, sharp-witted character. Her sarcasm is acerbic, her perceptiveness is incisive, and she remains lucid and even amusing during her most anxious episodes. In addition, Good Morning, Midnight's dialogue, and Sasha's concise mental commentary, reveals exacting portraits of the other characters -- a painter, a pair of Russians, the owner of a dress shop -- who are fascinating in their own right.

Jean Rhys is an extremely precise and careful writer who gives the impression, through the voices of her characters, of haphazard and ragged patterns of thought. Her style is marked with ellipses and dashes, with sentences and paragraphs trailing off or ending abruptly. Good Morning, Midnight is a slim novel, but Rhys's language creates space; each sentence resonates on the page, hanging in the reader's mind long after the book has been closed.


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