Two Writers Haunted by Their Caribbean Past

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A review by William Boyd for the New York Times.

A VIEW OF THE EMPIRE AT SUNSET
By Caryl Phillips
324 pp. Farrar, Straus & Giroux. $27.

Near the beginning of this remarkable novel, two West Indian domestic servants contemplate one of the daughters of the house — a young girl called Gwen — who is hiding from her family in a mango tree in the garden. The setting is the tiny Caribbean island of Dominica; the time is the late 1890s.

“‘That child something, eh?’

“Miss Ann shook her head. ‘It look to me like Miss Gwendolen catch somewhere between colored and white.’

“‘Maybe so, maybe so.’”

Gwendolen — Gwen — is a strange, moody girl, at odds with her family and her small world in Dominica, at that time part of the British Empire known as the Federal Colony of the Leeward Islands. But Gwen is no pure fictional construct. She is Ella Gwendolyn Rees Williams, later better known as the writer Jean Rhys, and Caryl Phillips’s new book, “A View of the Empire at Sunset,” is her partial biography rewritten as a novel. The narrative covers her life from her childhood in Dominica up until 1936, when Gwen makes her only return to the land of her birth. It closely follows both the format and the chronology of Rhys’s unfinished autobiography, published in 1979 as “Smile Please.”

Phillips relates Gwen’s rackety life through a series of impressionistic, discrete vignettes as we move from the Caribbean to England and Gwen’s school days, then to her life as a drama student, chorus girl and kept woman. Phillips makes no overt attempt to draw the parallels, and if you were unaware of Rhys’s story or the promotional copy you would have no idea that Rhys was the novel’s subject. Rhys’s writing — her first book, “The Left Bank,” a collection of stories, was published in 1927 — and her authorial ambitions don’t really figure here. This is the story of a troubled young woman trying to make her way in England during the early years of the 20th century.

Phillips’s shrewd move is to avoid the first-person singular of the memoir. In “A View of the Empire at Sunset,” Gwen is always “she.” The distancing effect is highly effective.

Here is Rhys in “Smile Please,” relating a conversation with her father before she leaves home: “‘If you’re very unhappy, or want anything very much, you must write directly to me. But don’t write at the first shock or I’ll be disappointed with you.’ I said, ‘Yes.’” And here is Phillips’s version: ‘With one solitary finger he reached down and raised up her whole face. ‘Don’t forget your family, Gwennie. I for one am looking forward to your letters. Write often, but not at the first shock. You won’t disappoint, will you?’ She now looked directly into her father’s eyes and tried to dispel her fears.”

One can see instantly the liberation that Phillips achieves and the added textures he can subtly import. Because, in a significant way, this novel is only partially about Jean Rhys a.k.a. Gwendolyn Williams. Phillips is more interested in using the circumstances of Rhys’s life to explore concerns that he has made very much his own in previous works of fiction. Like Rhys, Phillips was born on a tiny Caribbean island colony — St. Kitts, also in the British Leeward Islands, to the north of Dominica. Phillips left St. Kitts as a baby when his family moved to England and he made his life there. His first return to the island was when he was in his early 20s. Themes of exile, emigration, alienation and nomadism dominate his fiction just as they do Rhys’s novels and short stories. Both writers have been haunted by their Caribbean past, preoccupied with exploring the extent to which their birthright has shaped them and made them, like it or not, the people they are.

Rhys’s father was Welsh, but her mother was a fourth-generation member of the Creole elite in Dominica. Rhys initially spoke English with a strong West Indian accent, for which she was much mocked at her English school and which was regarded as a major impediment to her acting career. Her own sense of disaffection with England and the English was profound. As Phillips expresses it: “English people continued to bemuse and disappoint her. So much wasted energy. So much posturing.”

Phillips expertly conveys Gwen’s bafflement and dissociation from the “English people” she finds herself among. It’s as if the only true, verifiable experiences of her life had been left behind in Dominica; everything else is somehow sham and threatening. Gwen’s attempt to find a place in the world of repertory and variety theater is a failure and her circumstances become increasingly grim. Alcoholism, an abortion, prostitution and a failed suicide attempt testify to her sense of loss and utter insecurity.

There’s another overlap between Rhys and Phillips: Both have used the work of the Brontë sisters, Charlotte and Emily, to explore the themes that are so close to their hearts. In “Wide Sargasso Sea,” Rhys appropriated “Jane Eyre” and imagined an early Caribbean life for Mr. Rochester’s insane wife, Bertha (renamed Antoinette Cosway). Similarly, Phillips seized on the “Wuthering Heights” character of Heathcliff in his novel “The Lost Child,” in which the young man is the illegitimate offspring of Mr. Earnshaw and a former slave. Both novels use the Brontë fictions to explore the role of the outcast in society and the various forms that imperial, patriarchal oppression — both unthinking and intentional — can take. Consequently, there is a real sense of inevitability about “A View of the Empire at Sunset.” In this meshing of Phillips as writer and Rhys as subject all the great themes of Phillips’s fiction cohere in the difficult, dislocated, lonely life of Gwen Williams.

 

That the novel succeeds so well is a tribute to Phillips’s mastery of tone. Gwen is rarely referred to by name; it’s almost as if we’re reading a procedural statement rather than a story. Yet the point of view is rigidly confined to her, only very rarely shifting substantially, so we get a glimpse of Gwen as others see her. Otherwise we remain rooted in her subjective consciousness: “She closed her eyes and attempted to fix a sequence of images that might appeal to all of her senses: the distinctive sharp smell of dark velvet nights, the musical beat of rain on tin roofs, pipe water thundering into metal pails, the sun flaming against the sea before it disappears, the excessive, burdensome fertility of the island’s fruit trees, the vast electrical bravura of a sudden thunderstorm, the irritating flailing of a dead frond against the trunk of a palm.”

Jean Rhys’s prose was famously scrupulous. She once complained to her editor Diana Athill that a book she had published was unfinished in her terms because she had wanted to cut two unnecessary words — a “then” and a “quite” — and had been unable to do so. Caryl Phillips proudly upholds her standards in this austere, evocative investigation of a life caught “somewhere between colored and white.” It is a novel of acute psychological empathy and understanding.

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