Fiction Chronicle: Under West Indian Eyes (on Caryl Phillips’ new novel on Jean Rhys)

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In his muckraking memoir “Difficult Women” (1983), David Plante recounts the novelist Jean Rhys’s melancholy prediction that “people will try to uncover everything about me after I die to write it all down.” She was right, of course, and tell-all biographies have accumulated since her death in 1979, none crueler than Mr. Plante’s portrait of the artist in inebriated old age. Yes, Rhys was a thrice-married former showgirl who spent the better part of her 90 years in alcoholic penury, but she was also a crucial figure in émigré Paris’s modernist movement. She is best known as the author of “Wide Sargasso Sea” (1966), a richly imagined life of Rochester’s insane first wife in “Jane Eyre” that was a forerunner of the now-flourishing genre of novels that spin off from literary classics.

One of her many disciples is Caryl Phillips, whose 2015 novel “The Lost Child” embellishes the boyhood of Heathcliff from “Wuthering Heights.” His latest, “A View of the Empire at Sunset” (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 324 pages, $27), fictionalizes the life of Rhys herself. Mr. Phillips is, like Rhys, a Caribbean-born writer who moved to England at a young age, and his depiction of her sad circumstances is sympathetic though narrow and often drab.

Rhys was born to a Welsh doctor on the West Indies island of Dominica, and Mr. Phillips attributes her tragedy to an inextinguishable case of homesickness. “Are you English?” a man asks her late in the book. “Well,” she replies, “I suppose I’ve tried to be, but no.” She has a Sister Carrie trajectory, arriving in London at 16 and sliding from acting school to a job as a chorus girl and from there to prostitution. The novel follows her education in the elaborate humiliations of being a kept woman through a patchwork of bleary scenes set in boarding houses and cheap hotels, often involving nameless men. When she does at last find someone decent—her second husband, Leslie—she’s too traumatized and drink-addled to be happy with him.

Biographical fiction always faces the problem of distinguishing itself from nonfiction accounts, but the biggest obstacle for Mr. Phillips is Rhys’s 1934 autobiographical novel “Voyage in the Dark,” which captures much the same slice of her life. Rhys shaped her brutally stark vision of urban despair in a pared-back, deceptively artless style reminiscent of Hemingway and Dos Passos. (“When it was sad was when you woke up at night and thought about being alone and that everybody says the man’s bound to get tired.”) Mr. Phillips’s more formal prose can seem muffled in comparison.

More frustrating, though, is his decision to skip over Rhys’s emergence as a writer. Rhys wrote constantly, if painstakingly, yet this side of her is entirely missing from the story. Indeed, “Jean Rhys” is missing, as that was a pen name invented by Ford Madox Ford. (The novel uses her given name, Gwendolen Rees Williams.) The omission makes her seem distant and featureless, as though viewed through the wrong end of binoculars. It may be that Mr. Phillips’s real subject is the British Empire in decline, and Rhys’s bleak personal history has given him a mannequin on which to show its moth-eaten decadence, the moral stains on the sleeve of its dinner dress.

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