"The human soul demands more nourishment than mere recognition!" Phillips writes of the struggle of Jean Rhys (Wide Sargasso Sea), born in Dominica as Ella Gwendolyn Williams at the height of the British Empire. She leaves the Caribbean at sixteen for England and doesn't return until she is forty-five. Six weeks later, she leaves the island forever. The tale moves between that last fateful voyage to the West Indies and her childhood as the daughter of a Welsh doctor and a Creole mother.
At school in England, Gwen is unprepared for the reaction from her fellow students over her "mongrel look" and unintelligible accent, all of which leaves her with a permanent unease around outsiders. Like others born in the shadow of the Empire, Gwendolyn experiences alienation and family difficulties, a lonely life. In chapters where and older Gwen travels homeward with her second husband, Leslie, she is melancholy, her husband hoping to break through her coldness and excessive drinking. Leslie is doomed to frustration, unable to assuage his wife's discontent and lifetime of pain.
It is Phillips' retelling of Gwendolyn's story, Rhys frequently transcending the narrative, seeping into the turbulence of a world bearing the legacy of racism and imperialism. His vision captures Rhys's experience: the muddle of emotions, the confluence of past and present and the distortion of memory proved false. It is an unsettling journey, glowing with the grandeur of Empire and the underlying discontent like a dirty footprint across a freshly washed floor. A transplanted girl of sixteen is assaulted with reality, the relentless shattering of imagination in a place where she intuitively understands she will never be enough.
Moving back and forth in time, the essence of the haunting prose of Wide Sargasso Sea floats to the surface, Phillips' generous retelling of a true story awakening my memory of that exquisite novel, the sense of yearning for what once seemed real and possible. This tale is beautifully written, a past made less painful in sepia tones, treading two worlds in the Age of Empire, rife with jolts and warnings, treacherous territory for a young island girl filled with dreams. And for all the gentleness with which young Gwendolyn's story is told, it is the language of another--indeed, a man in love. How did it feel to be an outsider, odd, unappreciated, "different" looking? Where was a place for such a girl in an alien world? No place. The truth lies somewhere in history, buried in the colonial wreckage of the West Indies, defined by power and the brutal dynamics of race and gender.
Rhys's novel remains her legacy, Wide Sargasso Sea, a woman caught in the maw of history, her tale a message for others: I am alive. I have a story. Heed my story, but tell your own, speak for those who could not. This woman's struggle in an indifferent world belongs to all, a link in the chain that binds all.