I have a craft essay on Jean Rhys’ “Voyage in the Dark” now up at Fiction Writers Review:
“My violent objection to the notion of “unlikeable characters” began in fall 1996, in a UC Santa Barbara literature seminar. I was 20 years old and on the edge of a near-suicidal breakdown, having thrown myself for a full year at Eric, my elusive not-quite-boyfriend, while also fighting repressed childhood memories of my father’s sudden death. The professor for “Readings in the Novel” was an avuncular, brandy-voiced novelist from the Caribbean–what a lovely, safe escape from my obsessions this class would be. Then, on the second day of class, in walked Eric. Painful honesty compels me to report that I hoped this marked a fateful new chapter for us, and I adjusted the strap of my tank top to reveal more shoulder.
Fortunately, Eric was a lazy, mostly absent student. Did he show up the day we discussed Jean Rhys’s Voyage in the Dark? I feel like he did, but back in those days I lived with an illicitly thrilling and demented sensation that Eric was always with me, so it’s hard to remember.
What I remember best is the other students’ reaction to Voyage in the Dark’s narrator, Anna Morgan, a stand-in for Jean Rhys’s younger self, and a girl who, ahem, throws herself shamelessly at her lover and longs to die, while fighting repressed childhood memories of her father’s sudden death. “She’s pathetic,” the other students said. “She’s just a victim.” “There’s nothing you can like about her. She just seems like a waste of time.”
They weren’t just talking about Anna. They were talking about me.
I burned with shame but also with a vague sense of vindication, because I knew that Rhys’s third novel, published in 1934, was not just good. It was great. Most people know Rhys for Wide Sargasso Sea, her final novel, which resurrected her reputation in 1966 after she had disappeared from the literary world for more than two decades. Wide Sargasso Sea, a “prequel” to Jane Eyre set in Rhys’ childhood West Indies, is more academia-friendly, laced with “inter-textuality” and featuring a “colonialist setting.” But Voyage in the Dark is better.”
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