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Body and/or Soul?

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Asleep in the Sun by Adolfo Bioy Casares
Translated by Suzanne Jill Levine

So, what would you do if you found that you’d somehow committed your beloved wife to an asylum, allowed her almost identical sister to move into your house and bought a dog that had the same name as your partner? And you felt completely out of control of your own life and prey to unusual and sinister forces? That’s the premise of “Asleep in the Sun” by Adolfo Bioy Casares, and it’s certainly an odd one!

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I picked this up as a kind of antidote to a fairly difficult to get to grips with review book I’d just been reading, and certainly it was something very different! I’ve read a few of Bioy Casares’ works before and always found them very individual. “Asleep in the Sun” is narrated by Lucio, a rather ineffectual young man who lives in a very nosey neighbourhood (the alley) where it never seems to be possible to get away from old school friends, and where everyone knows everybody’s else’s business! He is besotted with his wife Diana, but the relationship appears to have its problems; and before he knows it, he’s managed to have Diana sent off to a sanatorium (a place she’s apparently spent time in before).

Lucio is appalled and bereft (then why did he do this, you might ask?), and he’s even more upset when his wacky sister-in-law Adriana Maria moves in with her vaguely unpleasant son. Adriana may look exactly like Diana, and seem intent on flinging herself at Lucio, but she’s very unlike her sister in personality. This sets Lucio to wondering why he loves Diana so much – is it just her physicality, to which he responds strongly, or is it what’s inside?

While Lucio continues with his job as a watch and clock repairer, his housekeeper Ceferina alternately insults and nurtures him. He mingles with his old friends in the neighbourhood, buys a dog (coincidentally named Diana) and tackles the sanatorium about sending his wife home. Finally, she does return – but somewhat changed in temperament, with all the kinks in her make-up ironed out. Although delighted to have her back, Lucio struggles with the changes in her. And he’s less than happy with the implication that he himself is in need of a little medical care. As his story progresses there is an increasing sense of menace, a hint of dark deeds, and Lucio’s struggle with identity becomes a profound one.

I’m not going to say any more about the plot because I’m trying to avoid spoilers (and there are plenty of those on the back of the book!); plus if I’m honest I’m still working out quite what to make of this intriguing and sometimes puzzling story. Like every Bioy Casares narrator I’ve encountered so far, Lucio is inherently unreliable; he denies every motive or intent recognised in him by friends and family, so that you end up wondering which of them is actually telling the truth! Initially, the book seems to be more about the troubles of his marriage, the differences of temperament between himself and those around him and the problems of his extended family and friends. But as the story develops it becomes much darker, ending up as a deep exploration of personality and what it is that makes a person themselves. Is it the physical or is it what we call the soul? And can the two be separated?

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“Asleep in the Sun” is not always a straightforward read – at one point our narrator states “I didn’t understand a thing”, and the reader is tempted to agree with him. It’s often unclear what’s real and imagined, and as I said, Lucio’s reactions and impressions are undependable to say the least. I found myself wondering at several points where the narrative was going and it’s only as you get to the end that everything clicks into place and you find out the kind of point Bioy Casares was trying to make.

So this is a very clever read, if perhaps a little unclear and unsettling in places (though that may be what the author had intended). I found myself thinking quite deeply about questions of identity (which are often fluid in Bioy Casares’ work) and I can tell that I’ll be pondering the book’s messages for some time. I didn’t love this in the same way as I loved “The Invention of Morel”, or the spoof crime novel “Where There’s Love, There’s Hate” which he wrote with Silvina Ocampo; but nevertheless I’ve ended up with plenty of food for thought and I’m sure I’m going to be mentally untangling “Asleep in the Sun” for months!

Reds on the Red Planet

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Aelita by Alexei Tolstoy

Soviet sci-fi has been a bit on my radar recently, what with my reads of the Strugatskys and Kirill Bulychev in particular. However, the genre has quite a history, and one of the earliest examples was the novel “Aelita” by Alexei Tolstoy. The book was adapted into a notable film, known for featuring some wonderful constructivist design, and I have seen this; however, I was keen to read the book and recently turned up a really lovely copy.

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Tolstoy himself was distantly related to the well-known novelist of that name (!), and Alexei managed to have a long and fairly illustrious career as a writer under Soviet rule. The latter fact has earned him a certain amount of censure as he’s credited with going along with the Soviet regime just for a quiet and comfortable life; I’ve seen him described as a “brilliant and faithful bard of Stalin” which is quite a condemnation. I wonder if the reality is more complex than that, and I do want to explore this Tolstoy’s work a little more. However, on to the book in hand.

“Aelita” was published in 1923, and is another piece of evidence for that decade being one in which Soviet arts managed to flourish before the clampdown of Stalin’s Red Terror. Set in a post-Revolution St. Petersburg, now Leningrad, our hero is Los; grieving over the death of his wife, he has lost himself in his work, building a rocket that will travel to Mars. Struggling to find a companion to travel with him, he’s eventually joined by Gusev, a retired soldier who’s always looking for adventure. Against all odds the two travellers set off and do make it to the red planet.

Of course nowadays we know much more about what Mars is like, and that it doesn’t sustain life as we know it, but back in 1923 Los ad Gusev find that the planet does indeed have a civilisation, although it is in decline. In fact, the Martians appear to be in an advanced state of capitalism, with a huge gulf between the ruling elite (the Engineers) and the general people, with the latter in dreadful working conditions (sound familiar?) As if that isn’t enough, the Earthmen discover that the planet is dying; they are dependent on the polar icecaps melting to provide water, and they aren’t – an environmental catastrophe diametrically opposed to the one we face on Earth today.

Some images from the "Aelita" film

Some images from the “Aelita” film

The visitors from Earth cause much consternation among the Martians, particular Aelita, the daughter of one of the Martian leaders. She and Los fall in love, thought it is of course a doomed love. Meanwhile, the good Soviet Gusev encourages a revolution amongst the Martian workers and battle breaks out. As the conflict rages, Los and Aelita are captured by the Engineers’ forces – will they escape and will Los and Gusev ever get back to Earth?

His brain chilled. That reddish globe of the Earth was so much like a flaming heart. And man, an ephemerid, coming to life for a moment; he – Los – all alone had, with his mad will, cut himself adrift from it, and was now sitting like some forlorn demon on this wretched patch of desert land. So this was solitude. Was that what he had wanted? Had he succeeded in escaping from himself?…

From what I recall of “Aelita” the film, the book is certainly quite different – and in a good way (yes, the book is *always* better!) This is Wellsian sci-fi (which I do love) and very inventive and exciting. I can’t really comment on the science on display here, because I have little or no scientific knowledge; but it sound convincing and wasn’t overwhelming or obtrusive so that’s all that matters. Because what’s important here is the story of people; Los, in particular, is a very engaging character. The death of his wife has hit him hard and he feels he has little to keep him going to attached to Earth. But he soon realises that his flight to Mars is an attempt to fly from himself and that’s impossible. His tragedy is to love someone unattainable and to face a second loss. I wonder how significant his name is? As for Gusev, despite his apparent simplicity as a Soviet soldier figure, he too is in search of something; having given all during the Revolution and Civil War, he finds ordinary life hard and is happy to jump into the conflict on Mars, bringing his socialist beliefs to the oppressed people here.

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“Aelita” has some wonderful writing, and Tolstoy’s vivid descriptions of the ship travelling through space, the Martian people and landscape are memorable. Cleverly, he creates a shared heritage between the Martians and Earthlings (which I won’t reveal) and this really is an inventive book. The technological leap forward represented by the flight to Mars was probably a reflection of the optimism felt in 1920s Soviet Russia; a sense that they’d survived the Revolution and the Civil War and were striding forward into the brave new world of the Communist future. Alas, I suspect “Aelita” could and would not have been written ten years later, and I’m going to try to look out some more of Tolstoy’s work to see where he progressed later into the Soviet years. However, “Aelita” itself was a fabulous read – and I rather wish we still had more mystery about the Red Planet out there!

A Journey to the end of the Night…

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Night Flight by Antoine de Saint-Exupery

If you’re a long-term reader like me, there are always books and authors on your radar you’ve always meant to read but never got round to. Antoine de Saint-Exupery is one of those. I’ve been aware of his book “The Little Prince” for as long as I can remember, though I’ve never actually read it; but it’s his other books that have appealed to me more, covering his experiences during the early days of flight. I’ve kept running across them recently, and then the lovely Alma Classics produced a new edition of his book “Night Flight” and kindly provided a review copy – so I’ve had no excuse not to read it.

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I wonder why SE’s best known work has tended to overshadow his others? Be that as it may, I approached “Night Flight” with little knowledge about the man and his work apart from the fact that he was something of a flying pioneer and that he died young. NF is a slim novel, almost a novella, and it tells the story of one night in the life of several characters involved in the work of the mail planes in South America. Fabien is a young pilot, making a night flight over Argentina carrying the mail to link up with the European mail plane. In these early days of flight, travelling at night is dangerous – the planes have limited instrumentation and navigation aids, and simply can’t handle the dark or bad weather. But Rivière, Fabien’s boss, is determined to show that planes are the most efficient way to carry the mail and he will risk all – even his pilots’ lives – to prove this.

The earth was spread with lights sending out their appeals, each house lighting up its own star, in the face of the immensity of the night, like a lighthouse turning towards the sea. Everything which sheltered a human life was now sparkling. And Fabien adored the way his entry into the night was like a slow and beautiful entry into a harbour.

So Fabien flies on through the night in his mail plane, contemplating his life and the bigger universe. As the storm increases and the weather deteriorates, so do the chances of the plane making it through. As the characters on the ground (including the inspector, Robineau, and Fabien’s wife) watch and wait, we share their anxiety as we wonder whether Fabien and the plane will make it through.

Fabien is roaming around in the night over the splendour of a sea of clouds, but down below him is eternity. He is lost among the constellations, where he alone dwells. He still holds the world in his hands and balances it against his chest. In his joystick he grasps the weight of human wealth, and carries, from one star to another, this useless treasure which he will have to give up…

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While this is a deceptively simple tale on the surface of things, and a slim volume at 110 pages, “Night Flight” certainly punches above its weight, as they say. The book is about many things: the desire of mankind to conquer the elements, whether the end justifies the means, collective responsibility vs the individual – and all couched in the most poetic prose. The translation, by David Carter, reads beautifully and captures wonderfully the feeling of working through the night, the sense of being out of the normal run of things, and the tensions of those on watch. Fabien himself is an elusive figure, contemplating the world and his lot with relative calm, and Saint-Exupery paints the pilots as pioneers – which they were – and heroic figures, battling the elements for the common good. There are no clear-cut conclusions at the end, and although Rivière is responsible for Fabien’s ultimate fate, he does not entirely take the blame.

“Night Flight” is one of those books that stays with you; the imagery of the night flying, the vigil on the ground and the thoughtful explorations of life and living are evocative, and still lingering in my mind long after finishing the book. If the qualities here are reflected in Saint-Exupery’s other books, I’ll certainly be wanting to read more – and fortunately, I do have a few more titles on the TBR….🙂

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(A word about the book itself – my review copy was kindly provided by Alma, and it’s an absolutely lovely edition. The cover image and design is perfect for the content, and it’s that almost plasticky type of cover you sometimes get nowadays. I wasn’t sure about it on one book I had this on, but here it works really well, lending the book the air of something that should be resilient enough to go on a Night Flight with you! If you plan to get a copy, I really recommend this one!)

Roaming the streets of Paris

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Paris Street Tales – edited and translated by Helen Constantine

Being the armchair traveller that I am, I do tend to love books that bring a place alive for me – especially when it’s one I’d love to visit but I never have. Maybe that’s why I read so many Russian books…. But putting that aside, I’ve always had a fascination with France, and Paris in particular; in fact, many of the first translated works I read were French (Colette, Cocteau, Sartre, de Beauvoir, Camus). So I’m probably the ideal audience for the latest release from OUP in their wonderful “City Tales” series.

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If you haven’t come across these books before, they’re a series of collections of stories based in a specific city. So far there have been titles covering places like Vienna, Rome and Berlin, to name just a few. I’ve read, of course, “Moscow Tales”, and also the first covering Paris, “Paris Tales”. Intriguingly, the City of Light warrants three volumes – the first, then “Paris Metro Tales” and now the new “Street” volume – quite a tribute to the appeal of the place! OUP were kind enough to provide a review copy of the latest book for me, and it was a real delight to read.

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Helen Constantine has once again translated and edited this collection and a fine job she’s done. Even on the volumes where the translation is by somebody else, you can see the care that’s put in to collating the stories. In this case, the tales are located in a particular city street, and there’s a little map of the area in the back plus biographical information about the authors.

What’s nice about the format of these books is that they’re so loose they can encompass anything from a classic tale by Maupassant of a lovers’ rendezvous to a very modern 21st century take on the traditional ‘policier’ by Didier Daeninckx. To contrast with that there’s a wonderful Maigret short story where the lugubrious detective solves a crime and dispenses his own kind of justice. The stories range from pure fiction, through reflections on life in Paris, to beautiful descriptions of particular areas.

Some of my favourites included Marcel Ayme’s “Rue Saint-Sulpice”, a thoughtful and intriguing tale about a man who takes his job a little too seriously; Roland Dorgeles’ “Rooftop Over the Champs-Elysees”, a beautiful memoir of his apartment in the city and the changes he’s seen; and of course the always wonderful Colette, with a typically idiosyncratic report of a crowd’s reaction to a hold up from her journalistic days. These are just a few highlights of what is a really marvellous collection with myriad riches to choose from. The last work in the book, “Rue de la Vieille Lanterne” by David Constantine, is the only one not translated and it was specially commissioned for the book. It’s a beautiful and moving retelling of the last days of the great French poet Gerard de Nerval and it’s evocative and poignant.

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This was such a wonderful collection of stories; the variety of styles and genres, the different locations and the excellent choice of authors really brought the streets of Paris alive. And despite its chunky length (272 pages in all), I got to the end of it and wanted more! I decided I really need to read the “Metro” volume as well, and then a little voice niggled in my head – and when I checked I found I do actually have it!

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So that was a close shave as I could well have ended up with duplicate books again. As it is, I have more wonderful tales of Paris to look forward to, and more happy armchair travel!

(Review copy kindly provided by OUP, for which many thanks!)

The Poet and the Physician

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The Invention of Dr. Cake by Andrew Motion

You could fit what I know about Andrew Motion onto a postage stamp: ex-poet laureate, author of a chunky biog of Philip Larkin which lurks on my shelves waiting for the right moment to be read, and an erudite commentator on documentaries I watch! However, apart from being a poet of note, he also seems to write in different genres, and I stumbled across this nice little book in the Sue Ryder charity shop recently. It wasn’t immediately clear whether the book (which came out in 2003) was fiction or fact, but it certainly sounded intriguing and so I couldn’t resist…

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“Dr. Cake…” is a book that immediately unsettles, as Motion with straight face introduces it by stating that he needed a change from thick, realistic biographies and that a certain character had caught his eye. This was one William Tabor, who Motion supposedly came across while researching his book “Wainewright the Poisoner”. The latter was a notorious painter/poet/murderer and Tabor himself was, according to Motion, a minor poet as well as a doctor. Tabor had published verse in his youth and then abandoned this for medicine, only returning to verse very late in his life when he undertook to complete Keats’ abandoned “Hyperion”.

But the focus of the story is not all on Tabor; he will be our narrator, but the tale he will tell is of his encounters with one Dr. John Cake. The bulk of the book consists of documents left behind by Tabor, relating his various meetings with Cake and also his funeral in 1844; the documents are apparently edited by Motion but the story is Tabor’s.

And a fascinating one it is too. Tabor is a reformer, trying to improve conditions for the poor and writing scholarly works on the subject. Having spotted that Dr. Cake was of the same turn of mind, he contacted his fellow medic and was invited to his house in the depths of Essex to discuss their findings. However, very little of the medical is discussed, as it turns out that both doctors have a poetic turn of mind. Cake is a man in poor health, dying of consumption, yet he seems anxious to discuss the art of verse with Tabor, despite the strain it puts on him. His house is certainly a singular one, with a linnet in a cage and goldfish in a bowl, and a very protective housekeeper called Mrs. O’Reilly who seems to have a very close relationship with her employer. As the men discuss poetry and poets, it seems that there is a mystery about Dr. Cake and something he wants to communicate to Tabor before he dies – but what is it?

And thus it is I come to speak
The Truth with this last breath:
we spend our lives pursuing Life
But only find our death.

(Motion or Tabor or Keats?)

To say any more about the book would be to spoil the fun, and it’s going to be difficult to discuss this at all without giving too much away. So if you plan to read it, and want to approach it with no preconceptions (like I did) then LOOK AWAY NOW! So, it’s safe to say that this is indeed a very clever work of fiction, in which Motion imagines a situation from the past to be different to how it actually was, and this is the story of the consequences. It involves Keats, who is obviously very important to Motion (he’s written a biography of him which is very highly rated), but it covers much more than just the life of Dr. Cake and the mystery surrounding it.

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Central to the book is Cake and Tabor’s discussions on poetry. Cake is of the opinion that most poets burn out – he cites later Wordsworth and Coleridge to support his argument; and he feels that it is best to either die young or stop writing when you feel the inspiration going and take a different path in life. Tabor does not necessarily agree, hoping that Wordsworth will find his muse again. It is this debate that occupies most of their brief time together and leads Tabor to the view he has by the end of the book. I shan’t say any more – nothing is conclusive at the finale but it’s certainly an intriguing conceit that Motion has come up with, and one that allows him plenty of scope to discuss the pros and cons of writing poetry all your life.

So Andrew Motion has actually produced a rather wonderful little volume. At 142 pages it’s concise enough to tell its story, discuss its main point, intrigue and entertain without boring the reader or overstaying its welcome. A discussion of the merits of poets and their longevity could be dull as ditchwater, but this certainly isn’t. Tabor/Motion-as-Tabor is a lyrical narrator, capturing the beauty of the world around him, as well as the emotions the poets go through. “The Invention of Dr. Cake” is something of a meta-title as the titular medic could be said to be invented by himself, by Tabor and by Motion! Nevertheless, this was one of those joyous and serendipitous charity shop finds and I’m so glad I stumbled across it.

A woman adrift between the wars

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After Leaving Mr. Mackenzie by Jean Rhys

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Choosing a book for Jean Rhys Reading Week has been really, really hard. Although I own a large pile of her works, the only one I can be sure I’ve read is “Wide Sargasso Sea”. In the end, I chose “After Leaving Mr. Mackenzie”, her second novel which was published in 1931.

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“ALMM” tells the story of Julia Martin, living in Paris between two World Wars, and drifting. Since being abandoned by her lover, Mr. Mackenzie, she’s been eking out a living on an allowance he sends her. So she drinks and floats around in a kind of daze, without direction. Julia is beginning to age; her looks are going and her ability to attract another lover seem limited. And when Mr. Mackenzie’s allowance stops, Julia has no place left to turn and is unable to find a way of obtaining enough money to survive.

A chance encounter with an Englishman sends Julia back to London, where she has sporadic contact with the man in question, Mr. Horsfield, as well as trying to contact another former lover for some help. Complicating things are Julia’s family: her sister Norah is caring for their dying mother, and there is also an unhelpful uncle. Julia’s back story is gradually revealed, and as things implode around her it seems that a return to Paris is the only option for a woman like her – though whether she’ll be able to find someone else to support her remains to be seen.

“ALMM” is a gritty, sad tale which brilliantly captures the life of an outsider, someone on the edges of society – and that’s particularly interesting here, because that kind of character in fiction is so often male. Julia isn’t a particularly appealing person; selfish, self-centred and troubled, she seems detached from life, dissocated from what’s going on around her, and it’s only as her story gradually unfolds that we find out what caused this. The loss of her child and the failure of marriage sent her off into the kind of lifestyle which estranged her from her family, and Julia is a person with no other resources upon which to fall back.

When you are a child you are yourself and you know and see everything prophetically. And then suddenly something happens and you stop being yourself; you become what others force you to be. You lose your wisdom and your soul.

It was this element that really hit me whilst reading the book; how women of that era were in such a difficult position. The effects of WW1 are often discussed with regard to men, but women had also been hit by a number of changes. With the success of the suffragette movement and the expansion of women’s presence in the workplace, there was no longer the expectation that they would be supported by men. Previously, you would find a husband or a lover or a family member to support you; now you could no longer expect that, and Julia is in a difficult place at a difficult time. Women were still expected to behave in a certain way and Julia’s life is not one her family can approve of. The fracturing of structures after the war is reflected in her fractured life, moving rather directionlessly on with no real plan. It’s obviously that she’s never been trained to earn her living and so she drifts without a function, relying on her looks and a series of lovers. How she’ll cope when the looks have finally gone is anyone’s guess – you can rather sadly imagine her as being found at the bottom of the Seine one day…

She said: ‘D’you know what I think? I think people do what they have to do, and then the time comes when they can’t any more, and they crack up. And that’s that.’

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Rhys apparently based the book on her own experience and certainly has a cold hard feel of realism about it. If Julia is at times a difficult character to sympathise with, the men are even worse. Horsfield in particular is the typical buttoned-up Englishman, set in his ways and nervous of stepping out of the narrow bounds of his life. After a couple of attempts to see Julia which degenerate into farce, he retreats into his little world having had enough adventure for one existence.

He shut the door and sighed. It was if he had altogether shut out the thought of Julia. The atmosphere of his house enveloped him – quiet and not without dignity, part of a world of lowered voices, and of passions, like Japanese dwarf trees, supressed for many generations. A familiar world.

“After Leaving Mr Mackenzie” is not a happy read; the characters are mainly leading empty and unfulfilled lives, there’s a sense of ennui hanging over the whole story and a feeling that life may not be that worth living. But despite this Julia finds the energy to battle through and keep going, ever hopeful that something will turn up and maybe the human spirit will always fight on, no matter what. Hers is a haunting story; she probably represents the lot of many women at the time, and Rhys brilliantly captures her voice and her world in compelling prose. Even if I don’t manage to read another book for Jean Rhys Reading Week I’m very glad that I picked this one up, and I intend to return to her books sooner rather than later.

(As a little piece of trivia, did you know that the Scottish indie band “Goodbye Mr. Mackenzie were named after the book?)

Jean Rhys Reading Week begins!

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Just a quick heads up that the Jean Rhys Reading Week, hosted by Jacqui at JacquiWine’s Journal and Eric at Lonesome Reader begins today!

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There will be lots of wonderful posts, tweets and the like to draw attention to this excellent and underrated writer so do join in if you can! There are plenty of books to choose from, including any of the ones in my picture below, which shows a mixture of fiction and (auto)biography.

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There’s also what’s probably her most famous work, “Wide Sargasso Sea”, a prequel to “Jane Eyre”. It’s the book that pretty much made her name and the one people still think of when they mention Jean Rhys. My copy had gone walkabout after being loaned to Middle Child, but Caroline at book word very kindly offered me a spare she had – isn’t it pretty? Thank you, Caroline!

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However, I shall be choosing to indulge in “After Leaving Mr. Mackenzie”, which I’ve owned for decades and I couldn’t tell you if I’ve read. I’m looking forward to it, and also to hearing everyone else’s thoughts on Jean Rhys – happy reading!

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