That has to rank up there with the strangest book covers of all time. Bananas, really? Ugh. Anyway, I have to admit to not really getting along with Wide Sargasso Sea – I found it confusing, uninteresting and vaguely disparaging to the character of Mr Rochester. It’s only saving grace was my sudden, desperate need to go read Jane Eyre. Which I did, so… win.
Plot summary: Born into the oppressive, colonialist society of 1930s Jamaica, white Creole heiress Antoinette Cosway meets a young Englishman who is drawn to her innocent beauty and sensuality. After their marriage, however, disturbing rumours begin to circulate which poison her husband against her. Caught between his demands and her own precarious sense of belonging, Antoinette is inexorably driven towards madness, and her husband into the arms of another novel’s heroine.
SPOILERS FOR JANE EYRE!
Just in case you weren’t aware, Wide Sargasso Sea was written in 1966 as a semi-prequel to the classic work Jane Eyre. Jane herself doesn’t feature; instead it follows the sad life of Bertha Rochester, the mad wife of the love interest in Jane Eyre, about whom almost nothing is known.
It’s written in three parts with different narratives – a young girl watching her mother spiral into madness, a newly-married husband and an older woman in despair. The change of POV can be incredibly confusing as there’s no warning and no title to tell you which character you’re following. I spent the majority of the second part working out who on earth was talking, as it’s really not clear at all. It didn’t help that I didn’t know the main character’s name until halfway through the damn book.
There isn’t actually a massive connection with Jane Eyre, or not that I could see. I didn’t recognise Mr Rochester when he eventually popped up until quite late on. Considering that was pretty much the only reason I read it, it didn’t help, especially when the story itself isn’t always that riveting. It was repetitive enough for me to think the narrative was actually telling the same event from different perspectives, when it was actually a different event about twenty years later. It’s not subtle in the slightest and tries to bludgeon The Point home as hard as possible.
When it does link up with Jane Eyre, it’s quite confusing. There is literally no reason why Antoinette suddenly becomes known as Bertha, and there’s only a half-hearted attempt to explain it. It doesn’t make sense. The whole thing feels like a story that Jean Rhys wanted to write and so she threw in some Eyre-allusions so people would actually read it.
That said, the third part reads almost like a different book. It connects, it makes sense and it’s written incredibly well. Whatever problems I might have with the plot of Wide Sargasso Sea, Jean Rhys can clearly write emotion well. I finished the book profoundly depressed, but that’s a sign of an author that knows how to get inside your head. It’s stormy, atmospheric and a tense read.
It’s also possible that part of the reason I wasn’t fond of this book is that it doesn’t set Mr Rochester out as an even semi-decent person. I mean, we know from Jane Eyre that he did things in his past he’s ashamed of, but Wide Sargasso Sea sets him out to be almost evil. As the only character really consistent in both books, he’s the sole measure we have for comparison and it just… doesn’t. His conduct, his dialogue and his thoughts don’t match up with the Mr Rochester we know. It could be anybody; it’s just not recognisable as that same character.
As you can probably gather, I was less than impressed. It wasn’t a good enough to story to stand on it’s own feet and the connection to Jane Eyre wasn’t strong enough to support it either. It could have been the backstory of Jane Marple or Jane Bennett, and it would hardly have made a difference. The third part of the book really is well-written, but those few chapters of emotion aren’t sufficient to over-ride the repetitive, derogatory chapters from the remainder.