Another novel with a Brontë connection from the award-winning British author.
Long before she became known for writing the feminist classic Wide Sargasso Sea, the author Jean Rhys was a girl named Ella Gwendolyn Rees Williams. Phillips begins his fictional account of Rhys’ life with her childhood on the island of Dominica, in the British West Indies. In his last book, The Lost Child (2015), Phillips used Wuthering Heights as the inspiration for a modern story about race and colonialism. The connections between Emily Brontë’s life and work and Phillips’ own novel were both rich and subtle. Race and colonialism are key themes, here, too, but their treatment is less thought-provoking, in part because race and colonialism are such obvious factors in Rhys’ biography and her masterpiece. For instance, it comes as no surprise that young Gwendolen’s (this is the spelling Phillips uses) mother doesn’t want her to socialize with the child of “Negro” servants, and Phillips’ depiction of the moment when Gwendolen is forever separated from her friend goes unexamined. Indeed, this novel is, for the most part, written in a blandly expository style, and it often veers dangerously close to cliché. Also, Phillips makes the stylistic choice to refer to his protagonist only as “she” (except when other characters refer to her in dialogue), regardless of any interfering antecedent, and there are many instances in which this is confusing, even for the reader who’s learned to expect it. After The Lost Child, this novel is a bit of a letdown. This is surprising, too, because Rhys led an undeniably unusual life. After she left home—at her parents’ insistence—for England at the age of 16, she studied acting. She spent much of the 1920s in Paris. She had numerous lovers and three husbands. And her oeuvre, though small, has been hugely influential, especially for female writers and academics. Phillips is under no obligation to make his protagonist sensational, of course, but he doesn’t even make her interesting. We get that Gwen is high-strung. We watch as she endures disappointments and tragedies. We see all this as if from a distance. There’s no depth here.
A lackluster novel from a great writer.