Review: Good Morning, Midnight by Jean Rhys

Book Review: Good Morning, Midnight

You Can’t Stop Me From Dreaming

– Sasha Jansen, Good Morning, Midnight

book-review-good-morning-midnight-by-jean-rhys

After all the excitement of Reading Rhys Week – you can read a comprehensive roundup by JacquiWine of all the amazing Rhys book reviews here – I’ve finally had the time to write my review of Good Morning, Midnight. I first read this novel a few years ago as part of a university course; it’s the Jean Rhys novel that started my admiration of and obsession with her work. Back then I was far too busy juggling uni assignments and a near full-time job to write reviews, but as I love rereading, I decided it was the perfect time to give my copy of Midnight another outing.

book-review-good-morning-midnight-by-jean-rhys book coverSo, what’s it all about? Good Morning, Midnight (Penguin Classics, 2000) is Rhys’s fourth novel, originally written in 1939. Like Quartet and After Leaving Mr Mackenzie, Rhys sets it in Paris, and the protagonist is a female British expat. Sasha Jensen is a woman living alone in a series of hotel rooms after a traumatic failed marriage, the death of her baby, and a string of unsuitable jobs. Her days are filled with reading, sleeping, and most notably, drinking, as she slips further and further away from happiness, sanity, and the rest of the world. Ultimately, though, she realises that she needs comfort and company to feel anything at all.

Dreaming and drowning

Rhys’s writing style is particularly effective and moving in Midnight. It also makes a marked change from her previous works. It’s written in first person, so we really get an insight into Sasha’s thoughts. It’s a stream of consciousness that clearly echoes aspects of Virginia Woolf’s writing. But Rhys’s style is full of contradictions; the narration is fragmented by the ellipses, sudden flashbacks and a lot of French, but it has a strong musicality to it too. It’s poetic (even the title is from an Emily Dickinson poem), full of rich imagery and symbolism. These contrasts work together to create a narrator who feels close to us, yet also pretty distant at times as we lose her either to her memories or to the bottle.

The flashbacks feel like an unreality – they seem like dream sequences. We’re privy to her dreams too. Even Sasha refers to her narration on events as coming from her “film-mind”. They’re her memories, for sure, but she’s distanced herself from them – by moving country or hotel, changing partner, or by drinking. One of the most poignant examples of this is her reaction after the tragic death of her newborn baby. She sees her body, stitched up, “not one line, not one wrinkle, not one crease”.

Her incessant drinking, too, highlights the recurring motif of drowning, which we also see in Quartet as protagonist Marya walks by the Seine. While it’s only insinuated that she attempted suicide in the past, it’s quite clear that she doesn’t want to live, but she’s too scared to act upon these feelings, thus resorting to alcohol to numb her psychological pain instead.

Painting Sasha’s identity

Another coping mechanism for Sasha is to recreate her identity. She ditches her first name, Sophia, in favour of Sasha, and obsesses over her appearance. While she can change her exterior with a new name, hair dye, a new hat and a fur coat, she can’t change how she feels on the inside – no matter how hard the Pernod tries. She’s also hyper-aware of her ageing, something that she cannot prevent. She’s losing her desirability, her sexual appeal, which only raises her anxiety.

About midway through the novel, Sasha buys a painting of a man playing the banjo, who is described as “double-headed with four arms”. He’s looking at the past while also he’s looking hopelessly at his future, something that Sasha can connect with. He is “gentle, humble, resigned, mocking, a little mad”. She creates a connection with this painting in a way that she can’t with anyone else.

That’s because, to her, he’s real in a way that humans aren’t. The way that Rhys represents humans in Midnight is extremely powerful. Early on, Sasha likens herself to an automaton, while later obsesses over mannequins. She looks at a shop window “full of artificial limbs”. She refers to people through their titles, nationalities or traits: the American, the Russians, the dancing daughter, the waiter… or describes them as hyenas, again using animal imagery. She also describes people as “blank”, evening calling one boss “Mr Blank”. It’s easier when you don’t develop connections with people or learn their names.

A hotel room of one’s own

Instead, Sasha builds greater connections with inanimate objects, as we saw with the painting. She also begins the novel talking to her hotel room. This is not uncommon with Rhys – the way she describes and subsequently animates a hotel room is unlike any other author. In Midnight, the rooms appear to be very judgemental. Her first room remarks, “Quite like old times,” seemingly triumphant at Sasha’s inability to better her situation.

She’s not fully alone throughout the novel though. The first hotel room is calling out for a companion for Sasha. It has two beds, “a big one for madame and a smaller one on the opposite side for monsieur”. Like her jobs, a series of men come and go in the novel, or are brought up as unsavoury flashbacks. We never get to know too much about the men – they’re either liars or mirrors of Sasha herself, using the opposite sex to get money.

Her first husband, Enno, expects Sasha to have money just as much as she expects it from him: “We both thought the other had money”. There’s also a blank in his life, “from 1917 onward a gap”. Inevitably, he comes and goes, perhaps just as traumatised as Sasha after the death of their child.

Then there’s René, another man with an unbelievable backstory and unidentifiable nationality, who is entirely dependant on women for money. He has an American benefactress (unseen), and he also ends up taking money from Sasha. There’s also the commercial traveller. He’s always wearing a dressing gown, which made him look “like a priest, the priest of some obscene, half-understood religion”. As he re-enters the novel in the last scene to replace René, silent, dressed in his white gown, he is equated with a god-like figure, a ghost, perhaps even the grim reaper. Sasha surrenders to him, needing the physical comfort she has repelled throughout the novel.

Verdict

The ambiguity of the final scene lingers after you’ve finished reading. It’s so uncomfortable to read, yet it’s hard to feel sympathy for Sasha as she feels so distant. Good Morning, Midnight, written after her previous works, definitely pushes Rhys’s writing in a new direction, while staying true to the semi-autobiographical tone and using recurring motifs. Sasha is older and, if possible, even sadder than Marya, Julia and Anna.

If you read one Rhys novel, make it this one.

★★★★★

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4 Comment

  1. Great review, Abby. This is another Rhys I’ve yet to read as it seems to represent the end-point in the sequence of her early novels, almost as though everything has been building up to this point. It’s interesting to note that she switched to a first-person narrative for this one, possibly as a way of heightening the intensity of the story.

    Many thanks for another excellent contribution to the Jean Rhys Reading Week. I’ll add a link to the round-up. 🙂

  2. Well done. I’m delighted I found your blog and this post. I’d given up on Rhys years ago because I got bogged down in Wide Sargasso Sea – now I’ll dive back in. I’ve been quoting her for years, however. Mary Cantwell, a writer for the New York Times, interviewed Rhys shortly before her death, and Cantwell gushed “Oh, Miss Rhys, you’ve led such a courageous life,” and Rhys said, “It wasn’t courage! It was a stubborn determination to be happy.” Ah, what more do we need?

    1. Ah wow, thanks for your comment Wendy! I would definitely recommend giving Rhys’s earlier works a go. Her personality and wit really shine through her earlier novels, particularly because of their semi-autobiographical nature. Hope you enjoy reading Rhys!

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