Sunday, March 10, 2013

Wide Sargasso Sea

By Jean Rhys

Antoinette Cosway is a Creole, meaning a person of French descent, in the West Indies. She comes from a stock of slave-owning European settlers, who are left quite high and dry, when slavery is abolished. Her father dies, leaving her, a mentally incapacitated younger brother and her mother Annette, the Coulibri Estate, near Spanish Town in Jamaica. It is an impoverished existence they live; fearful of the resentful freed slaves, never completely belonging to the land that has become suddenly hostile, yet not knowing of any other place to go. But her mother is young and pretty and manages to marry a rich Englishman Mason, who is willing to lavish her and her children with his wealth and love. But when the Coulibri Estate is burned down by former slaves, and her brother dies, her mother goes insane. The effect of all this on Antoinette is quite devastating. The only thing constant for her is her sense of the place; it is a sense that even the hostility of the locals does not manage to displace. “I love it more than anywhere in the world. As if it were a person. More than a person.”, she says.

Mason manages to get Antoinette married off. To an Englishman in search of a fortune. And so begins the second part of the book, narrated from the point of view of the husband. He is out of place in the West Indies. He sees the beauty of it, yet knows that the place has secrets he will never guess at. It is in a sense a metaphor for his impression of his wife as well – he sees her beauty, but he is suspicious of her past, of the secrets she will never let him into. “It was a beautiful place – wild, untouched, above all untouched, with an alien, disturbing, secret loveliness. And it kept its secret. I’d find myself thinking, “What I see is nothing – I want what it hides – that is not nothing.”

Antoinette is never able to shake off her husband’s suspicions about her mental normalcy, once he discovers her mother’s insanity. He begins to distance himself from her and the effect of that begins affecting her mentally. In desperation, she tries ‘obeah’, the West Indian version of voodoo, but all that results in is a further alienation, when her husband guesses at the truth. As a reader, you root for Antoinette and want to tell her, like her beloved Christophene does, Christophene, her father’s black mistress, that she should go away from her husband, that he is not the man for her, that “ ..this is not a man who will help you when he sees you break up. Only the best can do that. The best – and sometimes the worst.”But Antoinette never does that. Instead she goes to England with him. A place that to her, a Creole girl who has the sun in her, seems like cardboard – “It is, as I always knew, made of cardboard. I have seen it before somewhere, this cardboard world where everything is coloured brown or dark red or yellow that has no light in it.” And he locks her up, his Bertha, as he calls her, insane beyond redemption, secreted away from the world with Grace Poole for company. And Antoinette, longing for “the smell of vetivert and frangipani, of cinnamon and dust and lime trees when they are flowering – the smell of the sun and the smell of the rain” does what we know she will do – burn down the house and jump to her death.

We know she will do that, because somewhere in the book, the knowledge creeps up on us that we know Antoinette. We know her because we have seen her before as the mad Mrs. Rochester, the one who prevents Jane, lovely sweet Jane’s wedding to her beloved Mr. Rochester. So that is really what this story is about. A prequel to Jane Eyre, the story of the woman locked up in Thornfield Hall, the woman who causes Jane so much grief, the one who we always knew had a story to tell.

Jean Rhys tells that story and tells it so beautifully. She brings alive the vivid lushness and colour of the Caribbean as also its strangely gothic horror. She fleshes out the Bertha of Jane Eyre, creating a fragile beautiful woman who somehow ends up as the crazed wife of a man who never really knows how to love her. It is a haunting book; and if you have at some point read Jane Eyre, Wide Sargasso Sea will resonate that much more. Jean Rhys is quite a story-teller.

Sunday, March 03, 2013

The Solitude of Prime Numbers

By Paolo Giordano (Translated from Italian by Shaun Whiteside)


A prime number is of course indivisible by anything other than one and itself. Giordano describes them as numbers standing aloof and apart from the rest, their tracks running parallel to but never meeting the other prime numbers.  And in his debut novel, he creates two characters, Alice and Mattia, investing in them the same characteristics of prime numbers – the apartness, the solitude, the parallel tracks.
Alice and Mattia are severely damaged people. Alice, who never gets over a skiing accident as a child that leaves her scarred and limping, grows up anorexic and unable to fit into a normal world. Mattia, who leaves his retarded identical twin sister in a park, out of a childhood fear of embarrassment, loses her forever. He is a mathematical genius, but this childhood trauma never leaves him, and he grows up hurting himself with knives and burns, unable to fit into any semblance of a normal life.
Alice and Mattia find each other in adolescence and they recognize in each other the similarities of damage. Similarities that ensure a connection that stays with them through their lives. Yet, they spend their lives on parallel tracks, never able to take that special connection towards anything more meaningful than friendship. They grow up, people fall in love with them, people they are never able to love back enough as they attempt to lead lives like other people. Yet it only results in each of them hurting everyone who attempts to get close, never able to let go of their aloofness in the universe.
It is a savagely bleak book. But there is a searing, haunting quality to it that keeps you turning the pages, desperately wanting redemption for Alice and Mattia, even though you know they are too far gone for it to really happen. The language is spare, yet has a lyrical quality to it. “Mattia thought that he and Alice were like that, two twin primes, alone and lost, close but not close enough really to touch one another.” Or describing Mattia’s strangeness, Giordano writes, “He wanted to tell her that he liked studying because you can do it on your own, because all the things you study are already dead, cold and chewed-over. He wanted to tell her that the pages of the schoolbooks were all the same temperature, that they leave you time to choose, that they never hurt you and that you can’t hurt them either. But he said nothing.” Straightforward writing, yet it leaves a mark.
Paolo Giordano is a mathematician, who wrote this very successful book before he turned 30. And he turns out to be gorgeous; in the way Italian men are meant to be. Some people seem to have all the luck. But if it’s luck that churns out such a gem of a book, I am not complaining.