Wrestling with Rhys: Reflections on reading Voyage in the Dark

I debated leaving this book undiscussed, unfinished even. It is not in my nature to write negative reviews but I am not certain my reaction to Voyage in the Dark, my selection for the Jean Rhys Reading Week, counts as negative as much as it stands as disappointed. I felt it was worthwhile looking into why this book and its author did not work for me as I had hoped it would, especially when, at one time, I did read and enjoy several of her books. If anything has changed, of course, it is me. I am not the same reader I was thirty years ago and, if there could have been a worse time for me to entertain the company of Voyage’s protagonist Anna Morgan, this past week would be hard to beat.

voyageWhen we meet Anna, the young narrator of Jean Rhys’ 1934 novel, she is eighteen, going on nineteen, and working as a chorus girl. Transplanted to England from her childhood home in the Caribbean, she paints a picture of a country that is bleak, cold, rainy and unwelcoming. She meets Walter Jeffries while she is on tour and once she is back in London they connect and initiate an affair. Anna takes this development in stride, as if it is both her due and her fate. She tolerates the sex and relies on the money he provides her to pay her board in a series of rooming houses and buy herself clothing. If her feelings are conflicted, it is difficult to tell. If anything she comes across as inordinately indifferent:

Of course, you get used to things, you get used to anything. It was as if I had always lived like that. Only sometimes, when I had got back home and was undressing to go to bed, I would think, ‘My God, this is a funny way to live. My God, how did this happen?’

Happiness is at best a vague notion, elusive when she vaguely tries to grasp at it. Only when Walter leaves for an extended business trip, severing their relationship upon his return, does Anna feel “smashed.” She makes attempts to reach out to him, to win him back, but what does she really miss? His arms or his money? It is hard to be certain.

Anna is always cold. She blames it on her origins in a hot climate, but the chill runs much deeper. In contrast to her persistent obsession with the monotony of her English surroundings, memories of her life in Dominica are presented in richer, more vivid terms. They are shot through with a melancholia that does not speak to childhood nostalgia alone–there is a sense that her emotions are complicated–but these passages allow for some of my favourite moments in the book:

All the way back in the taxi I was still thinking about home and when I got into bed I lay awake, thinking about it. About how sad the sun can be, especially in the afternoon, but in a different way from the sadness of cold places, quite different. And the way the bats fly out at sunset, two by two, very stately. And the smell of the store down on the Bay. (‘I’ll take four yards of the pink, please, Miss Jessie.’) And the smell of Francine – acrid sweet. And the hibiscus once – it was so red, so proud, and its long gold tongue hung out. It was so red that even the sky was just a background for it. And I can’t believe it’s dead….And the sound of rain on the galvanized-iron roof. How it would go on and on, thundering on the roof…

Rhys’ prose is strikingly spare and unaffected. It works well when she is looking back, or when the narrative occasionally falls into brief periods of stream of consciousness. The personality of secondary characters, if not necessarily sympathetic, are rendered with stronger brush strokes than that of the young woman at the centre of the narrative. And this is where the Voyage in the Dark becomes an effort for me as a reader.

Anna’s extraordinary passivity is a hallmark of the novel, as are the abrupt flashes of impatience and pride that periodically flare around others. She can be fickle, petulant and self indulgent. None of these factors are a problem, together or apart; what seems lacking is a context in which to understand her attitude and behaviour. For many readers I suspect this elusive quality of Anna’s character is where the interest and appeal lies. I found that despite moments when I was ready to re-evaluate my response to the text, Anna’s hollowness, apathy and vanity would test my patience again.

When she muses “I was thinking, ‘I’m nineteen and I’ve got to go on living and living and living,” her reflections echo a person struggling with depression, and that may be a fair interpretation, but it doesn’t hold weight for me in spite of passages like:

It’s funny when you feel as if you don’t want to do anything more in your life except to sleep, or else to lie without moving. That’s when you hear time sliding past you like water running.

Anna holds no responsibility for anything that has happened to her in her short life. She is miserable and expects everything to be handed to her. That’s fine, there are people like that and I do not expect characters to behave in manner that I approve of or to be likeable. But in modernist fiction I anticipate a measure of believability that, for some reason, is lacking for me here.

This is, I caution, my own idiosyncratic response to a book that I realize is beloved by many. I can understand how, in my early twenties, living with an as yet undiagnosed mood disorder, as an ostensibly female person keen to find female characters and writers that resonated with my own alien understanding of my gender identity; Jean Rhys’ novels and female characters could have held a strong appeal. From this vantage point in my 50s, I suspect it is more my experience with mental illness, personally and professionally, than my cross gendered path that account for my difficulty pulling myself through this short novel. And then, I am also mourning the suicide of a dear friend who battled a soul crushing depression for more than a year before finally taking matters into her own hands earlier this month. Against that backdrop, Anna’s persistent gloominess was, shall we say, cold comfort.

Author: roughghosts

Literary blog of Joseph Schreiber. Writer. Reader. Editor. Photographer.

21 thoughts on “Wrestling with Rhys: Reflections on reading Voyage in the Dark”

  1. I can understand that response. There is a passivity about Rhys’s characters that is quite demanding and it can be hard to sympathise. I think too that the time you read a book has much to do with your response to it – I have reread books I last looked at in my 20s and found I feel completely different about them. Not all books are for all people…

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  2. I am so sorry to hear about the death of your friend. All friends are precious, and it is especially hard to deal with the loss when she took her own life.
    I found it difficult to find the right book after my mother died. I can’t not read, I can’t sleep if I don’t finish my day with reading in bed. But I couldn’t concentrate to read any demanding books. If I read something melancholy I felt worse, and if I read something light it felt facile. I think the truth is that no book is going to work because grief insists on its place in your life, and even a lifelong habit of reading yourself into a different world isn’t going to displace the strong feelings that you have.
    So I think that it was quite heroic of you to join in Reading Rhys, and thank you for sharing a different response to the book.

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    1. Thanks Lisa. I have been quite at a loss to read this week and Rhys was not a good fit. I debated posting about it all but a different reaction doesn’t hurt. I respect the book even if I didn’t enjoy it.

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  3. So sorry to hear about the loss of your friend, Joe. I can only begin to imagine how heartbreaking this must have been for you especially given everything else that has happened this year. life can be terribly cruel sometimes…

    I can relate your frustrations with the novel and with Anna in particular. (After Leaving Mr Mackenzie’s Julia Martin — a woman who could be viewed as an older version of Anna — elicited mixed opinions from the members of my book group as some readers found it very difficult to connect with her as a character. In some ways, I think Anna feels trapped by her situation and the constraints of society at the time, and maybe she knows that any attempt to push back against this would be futile.

    Thank you for sharing your thoughts on this novel. It’s always interesting to see a range of different perspectives on a book, both positive and negative. As Karen was saying earlier, our responses to certain books can change with age and where we are in our lives at the time of reading. So maybe Rhys is no longer for you now that you’ve reached a different stage in your life. (I think I would have found her books quite terrifying had I read them in my twenties, Voyage in particular.)

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    1. I was disappointed with myself for reacting so negatively to Anna. As a character she reminds me in a way of John Williams’ Stoner, another literary character who tried my patience for his passivity even if the book itself is well written. To me he was a passive wet blanket who can in many way be seen as a male counterpart to Anna. But of course that’s my own response, many people I know worship that book. 🙂

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  4. I’m also sorry to hear of your loss, but found your response to it and how it influenced your reading of this novel very moving. I’m sure most of us are influenced in our responses to works of art in general, and literature in particular, by all kinds of events and experiences outside of those ‘texts’: bereavement is probably one of the most potent. And i think from a blogging pov that it can be just as interesting to engage with a post that isn’t entirely positive about a book as it is to read one full of vapid praise. Brave work, Joseph, and bravo for having the courage to publish. It’s an inspiration.

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    1. Thank you Simon. As a reader (and increasingly as writer and editor) less than positive responses can be worth reflecting on. All the same, if the book isn’t working for me at all, I have no problem abandoning it and moving on. This novel did not fall into the latter category but if not for the Reading Rhys event I might have shelved it for the time being. Who knows?

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  5. For a negative review you still say quite a lot positive about it.

    I’m sorry for the loss of your friend. I don’t think this is a good book for that kind of emotional aftermath, so I’m not absolutely surprised it didn’t fly for you. Of course, that doesn’t mean it would have otherwise.

    It’s perhaps too easy to judge characters of a century ago by modern standards. What were her alternatives? She had no money, no training, jobs for women of her class (lower middle) were dull and fairly low paid. She was young and pretty and wanted more from life than endless making do, scrimping and saving. That coupled with what seems fairly clearly a form of depression I think does lead to a certain apathy, though the book I think doesn’t necessarily expect us to sympathise with her in all particulars. The character of Ethel is a clear contrast, and offers something of an alternative, but I wasn’t persuaded ultimately Ethel was going to get much further.

    On an aside, back when I suffered from depression the last thing I would do is read books that remotely accurately summarised the feeling of it. Far too dangerous.

    Anyway, thanks for the negative(ish) review. It’s interesting, and literary debate should not be mere cheerleading.

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    1. I didn’t hate this book or I would have given it up. I was actually quite interested in my response. There are many factors involved apart from life experience and circumstance, but as I write and publish more I am a much more critical reader. When I hit a text that has obvious strengths but still sits awkwardly with me I am inclined to ask why. That’s why I felt it was worth sorting some of this out. It’s funny, but going back over the work to write about it, I remembered the things I liked, the negative(ish) response was definitely bound to character and overall impact. I’ll be curious to see what stays with me of this encounter over time.

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  6. I do understand your lack of sympathy for Anna, even with her depression. I had something like your reaction when I read it in my depressed thirties. It is not a good novel to read if you are looking for a hopeful plot. Thirty years later I feel disappointed with it–not because of its subject, but because I think it is less well written than the other novels. Although the third published, Voyage was written first and it feels like a first, overwrought, humourless novel to me. There is a certain awkwardness and petulant anger about it that marks it as suffering from Rhys’s inexperience. She seems also to be pleading for sympathy, a plea dropped from the other three early novels–in those, a take or leave it quality leaves feelings up to the reader–a reaction well-expressed in these comments.

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  7. I think it’s perfectly reasonable to feel different about a writer or novel after time has passed – one reason that reading old favourites can be frightening! It’s as interesting to consider why you don’t like a book as it is to reflect on why you do like it, as this review demonstrates. I would argue, however, that although most characters in novels are not, most people in real life are extraordinarily passive!

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  8. I see no reason why you shouldn’t post a ‘negative’ review, though I, as others have mentioned as well, found your review quite positive.

    Have you ever finished a book and been angry or annoyed with it and then when you go over it, either to post a review or just to find out what you didn’t like about it, found that you actually quite liked it? This happened to me quite recently but I can’t remember what book it was as now I must think of the book positively.

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    1. I have found the process of writing about a book has sometimes shifted my response (for better or worse). I’ve also had the experience of having to read a book more than once to write a longer critical review for a magazine because I didn’t like it at all on first read. It’s the same thing that happens when you love a book and can’t remember it a week or two later, or you think you don’t like a book and can’t stop thinking about it.

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  9. I’m so sorry to hear about the loss of your friend and thank you for bravely writing about your personal relationship to this novel. I can entirely understand your perspective. I suppose for me the key to understanding her depression was in her conflicted sense of identity, from growing up somewhere that she didn’t feel like she belonged and feeling a shame about her heritage (even her skin colour). At one point she says “what happens if you don’t hope any more, if your back’s broken? What happens then?” This really conveyed for me how emotionally crushed she felt – as if her back was really broken which caused such a feeling of inertia in her and made her incapable of rising out of her situation or even being able to get out of bed. Of course, that doesn’t justify her sometimes cruel streak towards both men and women and, because she treats people so badly, it’s not surprising people sometimes treat her badly as well.

    I certainly related to this novel differently when I first read it at uni in my early 20s. I think it’s easier at that time to relate/sympathize with her attitude, but now I do feel more critical of it.

    Thanks again for posting this – I’m so glad to read your perspective.

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    1. Thank you for your comments. Even if my reaction to the novel was mixed, it was worth reading and examining why I responded in the way I did. You make some interesting observations. One has to wonder if a person like Anna will continue to be caught in this negative cycle. The author of the introduction suggests that Voyage may have been Rhys’ favourite of her own novels. Interesting…

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  10. So sorry to hear about your friend, so hard for those who must come to terms with the loss, and you are already grieving for your parents. Read wisely, as your instincts tell you to.

    I found this tale quite depressing, I think I was feeling great empathy for the loss of her past, the disillusionment of what she thought her future would be and the passive acceptance of a role that celebrated little of what she had to offer. No community, no guidance, no real love – just the memory of it, and even that came from the black servant who was also unappreciated by those with power over her.

    I’ve just put up my review if you’re interested in a different perspective, I’m coming from having read a lot of female Caribbean writers, which I knew were going to be quite different from Jean Rhys, but I do see shades of influence from her past, though I doubt that aspect continued much in her writing given the audience she was writing for and the culture she aspired to.

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      1. I love how the ensuing discussion and sharing of how a book affected us often does that, reviews by other readers add so much to our own interpretation, I couldn’t wait to read the reviews of Voyage in the Dark to witness other perspectives of her story and it was amazing how diverse opinions were. I couldn’t let go of how much her previous island life must have affected her, just seeing an image of the physical landscape, the way she describes the vibrant colours, not to mention the thing that is almost not mentioned at all, that she had lost her own mother at a young age; really there was no place for her in either country, a lost soul.

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