If you haven’t read Charlotte Bronte’s classic novel Jane Eyre, stop reading this review. Right now. I mean it!
Beginning with the traumatic childhood of Antoinette Cosway, Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea follows the tragic life of our heroine as she slowly transforms into Bertha Mason, a name thrust upon her by her brooding husband (who turns out to be none other than Rochester from Jane Eyre). Part Carribean Gothic and part character study, Wide Sargasso Sea is a novel of the consequences of hate, and what it means to love without trust. Kind of a Wicked for Jane Eyre, Wide Sargasso Sea has definitely earned its place on Time Magazine‘s list of the 100 Greatest Novels.
Growing up as a white Jamaican, Antionette Cosway faced a bizarre prejudice. On an island whose ethnic groups all seem to hate each other, the tension is as stifling as the tropical heat, and Rhys does a brilliant job at portraying it. With Antoinette’s interactions with local girls, to the attack on her home early in the novel, Rhys uses simple details and Antoinette’s dialect point-of-view to stage the scene and set up the dominoes that will fall later on in the novel.
The novel moves from Antionette’s childhood into her marriage to an unnamed suitor. Those who are familiar with Bronte’s beloved novel will come to recognize him as Rochester, and Rhys does a great job portraying a younger version of the Byronic hero. This portion of the novel alternates between Rochester’s and Antionette’s points of view from the odd beginnings of the marriage (Rochester essentially buys into the marriage from Antionette’s step-father, Paul Mason, as a preventative measure to keep property Antionette owns from being lost). Moving the location of this portion of the novel from Jamaica to Dominica allows for both Rochester and Antoinette to feel isolated–he from his native England, and she from Jamaica. When Rochester finds out some unseemly details of Antionette’s childhood, any trust and love he felt for his bride vanish, sending the poor young woman into a downward spiral.
The novel ends back in Rochester’s estate during the happenings of Bronte’s novel. With the voice alternating between Antoinette, who now goes only by Bertha, and her caretaker Grace Poole (another character from Bronte’s work), you feel the fiery passion and rebellion that destroys her mind and drives her destructive tendencies. Almost a fever dream, this short, final section of the novel shows the true consequences of a lifetime filled with hate.
Bottom Line: Deceptively simple, Wide Sargasso Sea is a quietly powerful and inspiring novel. Even rock legend Stevie Nicks found inspiration here, as a song titled “Wide Sargasso Sea” appears on her new album, In Your Dreams.
You can find Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea at your local chain bookstore, online, or at an independent bookstore near you (click here for a list).