Title: A View of the Empire at Sunset
Author: Caryl Phillips
Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Genre: Literary Fiction, Biographical
Rating: 5 stars
First, read this book. Then read all works by Jean Rhys, besides Wide Sargasso Sea. Or read all works by Jean Rhys and then read this book. Anyway, please do read Jean Rhys. She was a wonderful writer and I am only too glad that we have more of her to read, or even more about her, which Caryl Phillips does a brilliant job of in his book, “A View of the Empire at Sunset”.
And might I also say that this book will not be a happy read. It is dark, sullen and unforgettable (at least to me it was and still is). The book is a fictionalised telling of the life and times of Jean Rhys. Caryl Phillips does a brilliant job of fictionalising the life of Gwen Williams (Jean Rhys’s real name), the Welsh doctor’s daughter, who always wanted to be an insider to an English world, but was never one. The constant theme of home and missing what is home and then the back and forth to find home will keep you hooked and yet there were places where I thought: Wish he had written more about her writing life.
“A View of the Empire at Sunset” is about Gwen’s loves, her failed marriages and what she kept searching in men – and the translation of that in her novels and short stories (that is if you have read works, you can for sure see glimpses of those men and her in them). Her constant disappointments in love, miserable assessment of self and alcoholism loom large through her characters in Voyage in the Dark, After Leaving Mr Mackenzie and Good Morning, Midnight.
The place and setting of A View of the Empire at Sunset is for sure atmospheric – set in the waning years of the British Empire – Gwen thus is always an outsider from her West Indies birthplace, to her return now and then. The novel begins and ends in 1936, thirty years after she was sent to school and thirty years before she published Wide Sargasso Sea, which gave her career a boost like no other.
Having said that, Rhys’s travails are painful. At times, I just couldn’t bear to read about them. In all of this though, there are snatches of pure beauty and grace in the book, that Phillips manages to give us quite elegantly. Please do read this book if you want to know more about Gwen Williams the person and lesser about Jean Rhys, the writer.