REVIEW | Good Morning, Midnight by Jean Rhys

title: Good Morning, Midnight
[support an independent bookstore and purchase at Strand]
author: Jean Rhys
pages: 190
genre: literary fiction
originally published: 1938
source: New York Public Library

Literature is rife with supremely talented writers who have an, *ahem*, “fondness” for the bottle: Ernest Hemingway. F. Scott Fitzgerald. And Jean Rhys.

A bit about Rhys for those of you as new to her work as I was: she was born in 1894 in the West Indies, where she spent her childhood. At sixteen, she moved to England and survived the first World War. Over the course of her lifetime, she was mistress to a wealthy, married stockbroker, survived a near-fatal abortion procedure (not the stockbroker’s), worked as a nude model during times of financial stress (she was pretty hot, see below), had her own issues with alcohol, and married her first of three husbands in 1919. Super scandalous for the era, but rich fodder for her work.

In Good Morning, Midnight Sasha, the heroine, is drunk. And not a warm-fuzzy-silly-giggly drunk. Not a life-of-the-party-absolutely-no-inhibitions drunk. Sasha is melancholic drunk. Despondent drunk. Spontaneously-crying-in-public-often-enough-that-bartenders-all-over- town-are-familiar-with-your-intoxicated-oeuvre drunk. For 190 pages. Drunk. (n.b. Rhys also chooses to employ a first person stream of consciousness style so that we, the reader, may stumble in a state of doleful drunkenness with her. I find this book pairs well with a tall glass of Pinot Noir.) And to top it off (no pun intended), the backdrop for Sasha’s numerous glasses of Pernod is Paris, coincidentally the site of all the events in her past which cause her to drink in the first place (terrible work experiences, failed relationships, etc), so throughout the course of the book, she understandably struggles to drown her past while staring it’s setting in the face.

Not exactly a romantic, lighthearted Parisian romp. At its heart, it’s a story about choice: Sasha is precariously balancing on the precipice between spectator or participant in her own life. At times, she’s almost like an audience member at a bad piece of interactive improvisation, accepting whatever circumstances and people come her way. Men frequently approach her on the street, men who usually want something from her she cannot give (i.e. money, sex, etc. Apparently, bad dates haven’t changed much since the 1930s). The cycle goes something like this: the gentleman offers to ply her with Pernod and feigns interest in what she has to say as she desperately tries to think of a bar that doesn’t hold particularly sad memories or where she hasn’t embarrassed herself recently and unfortunately, she’s running out of real estate. Once there, they drink, his ulterior motive slowly reveals itself, she cries, stumbles home, and swears she’s going to behave like an upstanding member of society when she awakes. Standard alcoholic theme and variation, but Rhys’ telling is uniquely compelling.

For all it’s gravity, Rhys has, in my opinion, created a wonderfully brave and honest, if not depressing, piece. It resonates, almost disturbingly so. In Sasha, Rhys creates a woman who, though troubled, is just introspective enough to realize what’s causing her to coming undone, and she articulates the causes of and feelings about her slow fall in a brutal, raw way that is universally relatable. As uncomfortable as it may be to admit, we’ve thought and felt some of the things that Sasha has felt:

“Now I no longer wish to be loved, beautiful, happy or successful. I want one thing and one thing only–to be left alone. No more pawings, no more pryings–leave me alone…I’ve had enough of thinking, enough of remembering. Now whiskey, rum, gin, sherry…” (pg. 43).

On the story’s construction: In my humble opinion, I think Rhys made a wise decision to temper her narrative in favor quiet introspection and a somewhat ambling flow… a simple, meditative approach to unfolding Sasha’s tale. A truly fitting way to tell the story.

Rubric rating: 7. It was a strong piece, and I’m definitely going to check out more by Rhys…once I buy another bottle of wine.

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