I have delayed writing a review of Wide Sargasso Sea for quite some time. My reasoning is mostly that I did not understand the book and was trying to reconcile its hype with what I experienced myself. Wide Sargasso Sea is on The NY Times list of Top 100 Novels and was written as a prequel to Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre, although the latter was written in 1847 and Wide Sargasso Sea was not written until 1966. Interestingly, Jane Eyre did not make the list.
The novel is set in the Caribbean and is broken up into three separate stories, none of which really seem to be distinct narratives as much as hard to follow ramblings. The events, as much as they can really be called events since there are few momentous occurrences, making for a convoluted storyline. The characters are difficult to follow, as are their emotions, decisions and actions, aside from the general melancholy that exists as a rule. This confusion serves to puzzle the reader. Certain characters seems to possess racist and feminist sentiments but their reasoning and development are lacking.
I applaud Jean Rhys on her ability to transport the reader to her West Indies landscape. The sights, sounds, and smells of the tropical countryside are quite palpable both in the positive, the beautiful sights and fragrances of the blooming flora, and the negative, the oppressive heat and abject poverty. However, they do very little to help the reader better understand her characters.
After the fact, I spent some time researching this book. I concluded from the comments of many others that this work is not for the uninitiated reader. It loses its effect without a knowledge and understanding of Jane Eyre. As convoluted as it seems, familiarity with later events and who characters become is required in order to understand and appreciate the growth and development taking place in Wide Sargasso Sea.
Perhaps if I ever read Jane Eyre I will better understand this book but at the moment is seems like its greatest achievement is its imitation of Brontë’s earlier work.