Last week I flew through another wonderful book so perhaps my unlucky reading streak is broken. Good Morning Midnight is a novel by Jean Rhys, a mid 20th Century novelist from Dominica who eventually settled in England. I had read one of Rhys’ books previously, Wide Sargasso Sea, which is a prequel to Jane Eyre and tells the story of the first Mrs Rochester, AKA “the madwoman in the attic”.
Set in 1930s Paris, Good Morning Midnight tells the story of Sasha, a middle aged woman who had been living in London where she was drifting into alcoholism as a result of a broken marriage and extreme poverty. A friend of hers funds a short trip to Paris where she takes a room in a hotel and tries to fill her days with trips to the cinema, shopping and lunches, so that she will not give in to the temptation to drink. However, the reader senses that Sasha’s problems go further back than her recent traumas. When a man she encounters remarks that something bad must have happened to her to make her like this, Sasha answers “one thing? It wasn’t one thing. It took years. It was a slow process.” She thinks to herself, “Since I was born, hasn’t every word I’ve said, every thought I’ve thought, everything I’ve done, been tied up, weighted, chained?”
There is a sense of desperation and paranoia about Sasha. Paris is haunted with memories from her previous time there with her estranged husband, and she wonders if the cafe and bar owners remember her badly and are talking behind her back. The reader experiences an undercurrent of dread while reading the book; Sasha’s future is bleak and one senses that this trip will not end well.
Perhaps Rhys poured much of her own experience into the book. Before she became a writer she was a showgirl and had a brief stint as a prostitute. She had three failed marriages and one abortion, was herself an alcoholic, had spent time in jail and in asylums, and had been almost destitute at various points throughout her life. It wasn’t until she met Ford Madox Ford, who championed her as a writer and taught her how to channel her talent and experiences into her writing, that she had focus and meaningful work. Good Morning Midnight was deemed at the time of its publication to be too depressing for mainstream success however with the publication of Wide Sargasso Sea in 1966, Rhys finally gained fame and fortune, although as she said “it has come too late.”
The fact that the book was first published in 1939 is astonishing. Rhys’ writing was miles ahead of its time and does not seem in the least bit dated. The stream of consciousness technique Rhys utilises perfectly illustrates the unravelling of Sasha’s mind. The text is littered with ellipses, half finished sentences, repetition, and paragraphs that trail away into nothing. Sasha is however very funny and the dialogue at times is sardonic and clever. Rhys creates a powerful portrait of a woman whose life is slowly becoming undone despite her determination to maintain an indifferent facade and it’s a book that stays in the reader’s mind long after finishing it.