A blog for everything bookish

Wednesday 11 February 2015

Good Morning, Midnight by Jean Rhys

 This is a book that’s been sitting on my shelf for an age, which I’ve tried to read before and failed and yet heard good thing after good thing about it. So in the spirit of #TBR20 I decided to give it another try.

Good Morning, Midnight is a book about an older woman, a woman past her prime. On the face of it she’s lonely, discarded. She has little money, is living in Paris it seems in some kind of exile, she is past her prime, no longer exactly pretty or desirable. It is a claustrophobic kind of story, the kind where you see quite intimately her thoughts and experiences making for a discomforting read. I think this is why I struggled so much with it the first time around, but it is worth the effort of bearing with it.

The story jumps around a bit from her present in Paris, to the times she’d been in Paris before, to a marriage which fell apart after the death of her child. The protagonist is a drinker, and it’s not clear if she drinks because she’s an alcoholic or to expunge the daily deprivations and humiliations of life from her mind. She’s hypersensitive, always fearful of judgment or criticism from the people around her, from being exploited. These fears seem ridiculous, yet it soon becomes apparent they are not without reason.

There are some interesting dichotomies presented in the story. One the one hand you get the sense that the woman is lonely. She is old, she is alone, she is terrified of the man in the next room in the shabby hotel she is staying in. She spends much of her time by herself, drinking in the selection of bars she’s deemed ‘friendly’ or watching movies alone at the cinema. Yet as the novel progresses, you begin to wonder if this isn’t her choice? Whilst she seems lonely, she also seems to hate people. In fact she expresses this herself in some depth:

“’You want to know what I’m afraid of? All right. I’ll tell you…I’m afraid of men – yes, I’m very much afraid of men. And I’m even more afraid of women. And I’m very much afraid of the whole bloody human race…Afraid of them?’ I say. ‘Of course I’m afraid of them. Who wouldn’t be afraid of a pack of damned hyenas?’

She spends much of her time prowling the streets of Paris, remembering past humiliations and difficulties. She seems almost paralysed by her fear, her hatred of other people; unable, because of this, to fulfil her desires. Yet it’s not clear what her desires are. Does she want to be in a relationship? Does she want to be like others? Does she want to drink herself to death? Her inability to decide, to follow through on her decisions is a constant battle she has quietly with herself all of the time.

There’s a sense that this is a character out of control, yet at times she shows cast iron control. This is another dichotomy in the book. Because we see the endless bubbling, the violence of her thinking, this creates a sense of madness, of ‘raving’ as she refers to it herself. Yet at the same time she is able to parcel her day into neat little packages of events, she seems outwardly respectable. A quiet women having a drink in a bar, repulsing (to a degree) the approaches of men. Is she raving, or is she just perceptive? She cannot accept the strictures of society, does not want to ‘play the game’ of men and women, of social acceptability. She is caught between wanting to be herself and wanting to be what she’s expected to be. It is a battle her mind seems incapable of winning.

The moments I most enjoyed in this book were the moments of extremely sharp perception, of judgement. Like here, as she observes the behaviour a mother and daughter in a fashion shop she worked in at the time:

“’Come along, mother, do let’s go. Don’t be silly, mother. You won’t find anything here.’
There is a long glass between the two windows. The old lady complacently tries things on her bald head.
The daughter’s eyes meet mine in the mirror. Damned old hag, isn’t she funny?...I stare back at her coldly.
I will say for the old lady that she doesn’t care a damn about all this. She points to various things and says:
‘Show me that – show me that.’ A sturdy old lady with gay, bold eyes.
She tried on a hair-band, a Spanish comb, a flower. A green feather waves over her bald head. She is calm and completely unconcerned. She was like a Roman emperor in that last thing she tried on.
‘Mother, please come away. Do let’s go.’
The old lady doesn‘t take the slightest notice, and she has everything out of both cases before she goes. Then: ‘Well,’ she says, ‘I’m very sorry. I’m so sorry to have given you so much trouble.’
‘It’s no trouble at all, madame.’
As they go towards the door the daughter bursts out. A loud, fierce hiss: ‘Well, you made a perfect fool of yourself, as usual. If you want to do this again, you’ll have to do it by yourself. I refuse, I refuse.’
The old lady does not answer. I can see her face reflected in a mirror, her eyes still undaunted but something about her mouth and chin collapsing…Oh, but why not buy her a wig, several decent dresses, as much champagne as she can drink, all the things she likes to eat and oughtn’t to, a gigolo if she wants one? One last flare up and she’ll be dead in six months at the outside. That’s all you’re waiting for, isn’t it? But no, you must have the slow death, the bloodless killing that leaves no stain on your conscience…”

The bloodless death. This is something that the book is concerned with, our protagonist seeking, it seems, her own death. Death by excess, death by accident. Yet it is the bloodless death she seems to be on the path towards.

Good Morning, Midnight is an excellent book, it is mind-bending and somewhat difficult to read in a raving mad yet insightful kind of way. It is extremely intense writing, so much so that I felt like I was rattling through it and not taking it in. Making it a candidate for a judicious re-read, I think. It is challenging, the protagonist isn’t, and isn’t prepared to be, the woman people think she should be. This creates a terrible internal conflict that through the excellent prose of Jean Rhys we are able to see and experience with unforgiving intensity.

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