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'A View of the Empire at Sunset' uses author Jean Rhys to explore 'otherness'

Novelist Caryl Phillips uses the life of author Jean Rhys to once again explore themes of racism and colonialism.

A View of the Empire at Sunset By Caryl Phillips Farrar, Straus and Giroux 336 pp.
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In “A View of the Empire at Sunset,” the latest novel by Caryl Phillips, the writer returns to the themes of racism and colonialism through an imagined account of the life of author Jean Rhys. Phillips draws upon the events of Rhys’s real life, using it as a scaffold upon which to write his tale, to explore a sense of “otherness” and isolation amidst shifting power struggles.

Rhys, best known for her book “Wide Sargasso Sea,” lived one of those lives that embodied the arc of the 20th century. She came of age during the societal strictures of the Edwardian Era and the fading influence of the British Empire and persisted (yes, a deliberate word choice) through the feminist movement and the social upheaval of the late 1960s.

Phillips borrows one of Rhys’s own techniques. Readers might recall that, in “Wide Sargasso Sea,” Rhys also embellished a tale with an imagined life. A prequel to Charlotte Bronte’s novel “Jane Eyre,” she crafted a backstory for Mr. Rochester’s wife, the madwoman confined to the attic. She illuminates the woman’s experiences, giving her a voice and a perspective that counters the original patriarchal narrative.

It is no coincidence that the life of Mr. Rochester’s wife echoes Rhys’s own life – a shared Caribbean background and a sense of isolation on another continent that leaves them stranded between two cultures. It is likely no coincidence that Phillips’s life follows a similar pattern. He was born on St. Kitts but grew up in Great Britain.

Jean Rhys was born Ella Gwendolyn Rees Williams on the Caribbean island of Dominica in the last decade of the 19th century. Her father was a Welsh physician, her mother a third-generation Creole of Scottish ancestry. On the colonized island, they were counted among the elite.

At the age of 16, “Gwennie” was sent, against her wishes, to live with an aunt in Great Britain to continue her education. Thrust into a society so unlike her beloved island culture, Rhys struggled to find her place and experienced a cruel sense of being “other.”

As depicted in Phillips’s accounts, today’s Mean Girls have nothing on Gwennie’s classmates at the British school for girls that she attended. They mocked her for her accent and her unfamiliarity with societal nuances.

With her father’s permission, Gwennie transferred to a drama school. The change failed to ameliorate her situation for, with her strong island accent, she never mastered the “proper English” necessary for the stage. She next settled on a life as a chorus girl – ironic since the role required her to melt into a group when the recurring theme is her sense of isolation in the midst of a crowd.

But it is these ironic twists in Rhys’s life that Phillips utilizes so skillfully.

Instead of the usual chapters, he structures the book as a series of vignettes, 65 of them that reveal imagined glimpses into Rhys’s experiences. Phillips counts on the reader to string them together. Under his deft hand, the prose subtly implies more than it tells. Rather than a consistent narrative style, Phillips shapes the prose to reflect the stages of her life, from the powerless demimondaine to the outspoken feminist writer.

The novel builds to a culminating experience in Rhys’s life, her return to her beloved island. She travels with her then-husband – she had three husbands along the way – in a futile attempt to salvage their marriage.

Though records indicate Rhys made such a journey, she never wrote about her experiences. This void provides Phillips with a fertile foundation on which to delve deeper into the themes of race, gender, and power.

In one brief passage, Phillips illuminates the irony of global race relations. Leaving her husband at the rented house, Rhys goes off alone to find her father’s grave, a site she’d never seen as he passed away while she was at school in England.  As she works to clear the overgrowth around the headstone, an island resident, “an elderly Negro” pauses and smiles as he recognizes her as “the Williams girl.”

Gwennie, however, has no memory of the man and no interest in kindling any rapport. She thinks to give him a few coins, a patronizing gesture her father would have expected of her. The brief vignette turns the tables on her experiences. Back on the colonized island, the Williams girl deftly wields inherited power.

Captured in a few brief pages, the scene reveals the irony of social structures. Like each of the themes that Phillips examines, the struggles echo through the decades, never resolved, always recurring.

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