Monthly Archives: March 2014

Let’s add a little hot sauce to those eggs: The spicy spin of “Wide Sargasso Sea” on a classic

widesargassoeditSo I will admit that I am avoiding my grammar homework a bit and I have also fallen far behind on my book blogging. The dreary, slow wait for spring is not conducive to productive work habits! So here I am hoping to kickstart spring into gear through my go-get-em attitude. Despite my lack of blogging, there has not been a lack of reading. After reading “Longbourne”, I felt drawn to read “Wide Sargasso Sea” by Jean Rhys. I had read it back in university, and “Longbourne” made me want to read another classic retake.

“Wide Sargasso Sea” is inspired by Charlotte Bronte’s “Jane Eyre”. It is the story of Mrs. Bertha Rochester and an exploration of her descent into madness. I enjoy this book because it presents a different interpretation of events and points the finger of blame at Mr. Rochester instead of towards the crazed Jamaican woman we are introduced to in Bronte’s book. In Part One, Antoinette is the narrator. Antoinette has a difficult beginning to her life. She is a Creole born into a society attempting to transition out of slavery but still steeped in colonialism. Her father kills himself after losing his wealth, and she and her mother become slightly strange in their poverty and isolation on their plantation out in the jungle. Her mother eventually marries a rich Englishman, but their happiness is quickly destroyed when their house and small son are killed by a riot of unhappy locals. Antoinette’s mother is placed in an asylum and her stepfather retreats back to England. Antoinette is placed in a safe and educational environment at the local convent in Spanish Town. She grows into a beautiful woman, and is removed from the convent by her doting stepfather and introduced to Edward.

Part Two is almost entirely from Edward’s perspective, which is interesting that most of the marriage and Antoniette’s supposed change in character is all from Edward’s perspective. Within a month of meeting, Edward and Antoinette are married. Rhys never explores why Antoinette marries Edward so quickly but she does seem to fall in love with her husband very quickly after the marriage.  Edward, however, realizes that he does not like or know the woman that he married and feels tricked by her exotic beauty and intense lovemaking. It turns out he was deliriously sick for three weeks of the month they were courting, yet he is still the one who convinced Antoinette to marry him despite her misgivings. (I personally think it was his desire for money, status and pride that caused him to push for marriage so quickly.) Mr. Rochester begins to call her Bertha to symbolize that he does not recognize her as the woman he married but also to begin to try to alter her into the silent puppet wife he would like her to be.  She is completely heartbroken when her repeated efforts to make him love her again fails and she overhears him having sex with one of the servant girls. She grows crazy with her despair and confusion, and Edward is convinced this is her true genetic nature revealing itself. He drags her to England with him so he can live his life while she is locked up but well taken care of. In Part Three, Antoinette narrates her life in England between her periods of insanity and we get to see a more forgiving perspective as to how she burnt that great house down.

With her name, her dignity, and her country taken away, it is little wonder that Antoinette gives into madness. It is possible that she may have a tendency to madness from her mother, but even Rhys presents the possibility that Antoinette’s mother may not have been completely mad. She may have had a lapse in sanity due to the loss of her home and the sudden death of a dear son. And she could have stayed that way because she was locked away from her husband and daughter, forced to stay in a country she hated, and was regularly raped and kept drunk by her caregivers. I would say those are enough reasons to make any person go crazy.

The depth of conversation provided by Rhys’s exploration of the other side of the popular Bronte story is what makes me come back to this book. However, I find that Rhys’s writing gives into this feeling of madness that circulates around all of the characters.  Mr. Rochester has these weird, irrational side conversations with himself that lost me, as a reader, for a bit. Particularly at the end of Part Two, Mr. Rochester seems to lose his mind in his self-absorbed world of power and wealth, his discontentment and confusion with his current life, and his determined possession over this wife he hates.  Instead of commenting and describing the madness in the situation, Rhys’s writing only describes Mr. Rochester’s frenzied and erratic thoughts. I was a little bored by the story and strange writing at this point.

Despite some writing and plot shortcomings, Rhys paints a powerful picture and presents a compelling alternative story to what Edward Rochester presents to Jane Eyre in Bronte’s book. I will be re-reading “Jane Eyre” and will keep in the back of my mind this portrayal of Mr. Rochester as cruel and off kilter. Perhaps I will catch something new in this classic story or find something different in the characters because of Jean Rhys “Wide Sargasso Sea”. That is the beauty of novels; their ability to alter your perspective through storytelling.

3/5 bacon strips

The food is eaten, only the dishes left: some final thoughts on Canada Reads 2014

canadareadsw2Well, the debates are done, the final votes cast and the celebrations are still under way for the winner of Canada Reads 2014….Joseph Boyden’s “The Orenda”!

I found myself engrossed in this year’s Canada Reads debate. I haven’t had the time to read the books or listen to the debates in a couple of years so perhaps this excitement occurs every year, but this year’s debate seemed particularly intense. I think part of that intensity was because the debate was about more than books. This year was also about the issues that need the attention of Canadians. So each debater wasn’t just arguing the literary merits of their books, they were also arguing for the recognition of Aboriginal rights (The Orenda), the plight of new immigrants (Cockroach), gender identity (Annabel), racism (Half-Blood Blues) and the environment (Year of the Flood). And all of these issues elicit strong emotions.

Although in hindsight, I’m not quite sure Donovan Bailey did present the issue “Half-Blood Blues” brings to the forefront. I think the only reason that “Half-Blood Blues” made it to Day 2 was because the book is so well written. It didn’t have a relevant Canadian justice issue, not in the obvious way as the rest of the books, so it wasn’t a surprise when it was voted out.

The most disappointing result was Day 1’s elimination of “Year of the Flood”. I agree with Stephen Lewis that the book put forward a very real environmental future, and that we lost out on that discussion by having the book voted out on Day 1. I know that some of the panelists argued that Atwood’s characters were not relatable yet I did not understand how the protagonist of “Cockroach” escaped that same assessment and resulting elimination. The result of the Day 1 debate still shocks me.

Another surprise for me was the eloquence of the panelists. Wab Kinew’s spoken word defense on the first day was clap-inducing (while driving in my car might I add). Stephen Lewis, who questioned his suitability on the first day for a literary panel, had so many quotable arguments. Most memorable for me: “I thought he was drunk on similes and metaphors” in reference to Rawi Hage’s “Cockroach”.

Sarah Gadon who seemed timid at first introductions quickly shed that perception by presenting her opinion firmly, voting strategically, and arguing passionately for “Annabel”. Even when all the panelists argued against her regarding the pregnancy plot point, Gadon stood her ground. She insisted the metaphorical meaning of the incident be considered (a worthwhile analysis I had not seen) and that an untrue literal interpretation should not sway the panelists’ votes. Her gutteral complaints at the elimination of “Annabel” reflected just how much she believed in her book and the issues it brought up.

And Samantha Bee. Every day I was impressed by her thoughtful, articulate, and emotional arguments for “Cockroach” and the issues faced by new immigrants that she felt this book represented. She made me (and her panelists) reconsider a book I had completely dismissed, and I think she is the reason that “Cockroach” made it so far in this competition.

And yet despite her best arguments, “The Orenda” won in a nail-biting final vote. I definitely agree it is the best book in terms of literary worth and the ability to change Canada’s perspective. The only thing that I wished at the end was that the debates could have gone on longer. There were so many issues both literary and socially that went undiscussed due to time restrictions, and perspectives that went unsaid due to the competitive nature of Canada Reads 2014. It’s too bad there couldn’t be a monthly radio book discussion. I guess I will just have to wait for next year’s Canada Reads!

 

Longbourn by Jo Baker: Let’s flip and see the other side of the pancake

longbourneditI like Jane Austen. I am one of those people who have read all of the Jane Austen books many times and own the movie versions both BBC and Hollywood of her novels. (Sidenote: if you have not seen the BBC mini-series of Sense and Sensibility from 2008 you must if you are an Austenite. It is the perfect combination of Austen demure sensibility and the dramatic modern remakes). Any title that has the word Austen in it or seems connected to the beloved author Jane will definitely cause me to give it a second glance. And yet I am cautious about books that claim to add or give a new perspective to any of Austen’s novels. Because so often they seem to rely on the fame of Austen’s characters to get by without building any real story or having any profound writing on their own. When I saw that “Longbourn” was on many of the best books of 2013 lists and had a Heather’s Pick sticker at Chapters, I hoped this book would escape the Austen coattail curse. I think “Longbourne” has succeeded where many other sequels/prequels/remakes failed and is a book that any reader, Austenite or not, will enjoy.

“Longbourne” is from the perspective of Mrs. Hill, Sarah and Polly, the housemaids in the Bennet household, and the new footman, James Smith. The majority of the novel coincides with the events in “Pride and Prejudice” (which I will refer to as P&P from henceforth), so we get snippets of those classic plot points. There are parts of the novel that did drag a little because I knew some of the events that were to come and Sarah’s story is dictated a little too much by Elizabeth’s. There are also moments where Baker uses memorable phrases from Austen’s book which feels like Baker was screaming “I’m writing an Austen remake!!” (eg. “Sarah, crossing the yard a little later with the pig-bucket, saw Elizabeth passing the side of the house in Lady Catherine’s wake. They disappeared into the little wilderness.” p.297, emphasis mine on a phrase from the same scene in Austen’s novel that is re-used in almost every P&P remake and Austen biography movie). But these two drawbacks appear only a few times and “Longbourn” more often than not has a life and wording all its own.

Baker’s strongest point, in fact, is that although she uses the plot and characters of “Pride and Prejudice” as a starting point, she creates fascinating characters of her own in Sarah and James. She also provides them engrossing storylines that do separate from the love stories of the Bennett sisters while still working with the P&P timeline. At the end of the novel, Sarah and James leave the Bennet circle entirely, and we experience their independent protagonist stories.

Baker also engrosses the reader through fascinating details of domestic life in 19th century England and the realities faced by lower class women like Mrs. Hill and Sarah. You feel Sarah’s desire for something more from her life than the constant work and yet the reality that there is little she can do to alter her current situation. There is also the complicated and gentle love story of Sarah and James, while she grows from a restless and fiery girl into a confident woman and he comes to terms with his brutal soldiering past.

As a lover of the P&P tale, there is an extra element of enjoyment from this book for Austen fans. Baker adds new elements to this classic story. We experience the well known characters from a different angle; the angle of their servants. We see that although Jane and Elizabeth are kind and sensible, the lives and hearts of their servants are almost invisible to them, and they exhibit selfishness and entitlement in comparison to their servants’ behaviours. And Baker gives a new view of Mr. Bennet through the scandal and intrigue of Mrs. Hill’s back story. Baker adds plot points, insights, and personality traits that build her own story and characters while still staying within the realm of possibility of the P&P world.

If you like “Pride and Prejudice”, historical novels set in the 19th century, and a coming-of-age love story with a bit of sex thrown in (that Jane Austen would have only hinted at subtly), then you should read this book.

4/5 bacon strips