“Good Morning Midnight” by Jean Rhys – looking for love

It’s the 1930s, and the narrator who calls herself Sasha, no longer young, has been lent money by a woman friend to leave London and attempt a fresh start in Paris. Since it is clear from the outset that she is depressed, lonely and alcoholic, only feeling lucky “ when I have had a couple of extra drinks and am quite sane”, it seems inevitable that this will not end well.

Gradually, through fragmented memories, we learn of the past love affair which broke her heart, but not of underlying explanations for her inability to copy with life and to “be like other people”, her fear and sense of rejection and ultimate lack of desire to go on living. This novel seems to be to some extent autobiographical, most particularly in describing Sasha’s perceptions and emotions, in various stages of drunkenness, rarely sober. Despite my alternating feelings of depression and irritation over Sasha’s passivity and destructive self-absorption, the writing exerted a remarkable power enabling me to relate to a state of mind I rarely share to such a degree, and conveying the poignancy of Sasha’s situation.

Jean Rhys seems to have been preoccupied with the idea of a woman adrift in an uncaring Paris, despite its romantic reputation, continually subjecting herself to casual misuse and abuse by men. This novel is the last of four on this subject, with the oldest variation on the theme in the form of Sasha.

I enjoyed the early flashback in which Sasha describes her brief stint working for a “dress-house”, a job gained as a favour. “Drugged” with boredom, she reflects on how successful the life-size dolls in the window would have been if real women: “satin skin, silk hair, velvet eyes, sawdust heart- all complete”, a sad comment on her experience of being casually objectified by men, a novel thought in the 1930s. This is followed by her growing sense of panic, induced by fear that the visiting English boss will see through her lack of qualifications for the job, her poor French. Ironically, she proceeds to make the very embarrassing error she fears through misunderstanding an instruction because of his dire accent.

Even in the bleakest moments of this sad novel, Jean Rhys creates a strong sense of place in Paris, and lightens the scene with acute observations, acerbic comments and a keen sense of tragi-comedy. Apparently, when the book was published, critics praised its style but felt it was too depressing to succeed. This drove the author into an absence from the writing scene for years, until the request to turn the book into a play restored her confidence and triggered her best-known and highly regarded novel, “Wide Sargasso Sea”, drawing on her own experience of being brought up in the West Indies, the daughter of a white Creole mother.

The impressionistic style and structure of “Good Morning Midnight” must have seemed quite original when first written. I wished it could have been applied to a more engaging plot, although I can see that it is an achievement to capture a state of mind so well. I was also struck by some striking, poetic expressions of everyday observations.

“There is a wind and the flowers on the window-sill, and their shadows on the (drawn) curtains are waving. Like swans dipping their beaks in water. Like the incalculable raising its head, uselessly and wildly, for one moment before it sinks down, into the darkness. Like skulls on long, thin necks. Plunging wildly when the wind blows, to the end of the curtain, which is their nothingness”.

The book’s title is culled from a poem by Emily Dickinson included below, which also seems to encapsulate Sasha’s position.

“Good Morning—Midnight—
I’m coming Home—
Day—got tired of Me—
How could I—of Him?

Sunshine was a sweet place—
I liked to stay—
But Morn—didn’t want me—now—
So—Goodnight—Day!

I can look—can’t I—
When the East is Red?
The Hills—have a way—then—
That puts the Heart—abroad—

You—are not so fair—Midnight—
I chose—Day—
But—please take a little Girl—
He turned away!”

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