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Voyage in the Dark

by Jean Rhys

VOYAGE IN THE DARK is Jean Rhys’ bleakly mesmerising account of one young woman, Anna, as she journeys through a tangled web of dubious acquaintances, seedy dwellings and alcohol-fuelled encounters in the demi-monde of late Edwardian England.

After the death of her father, and having proved too expensive for her uncle to look after, Anna has been sent from her West Indian home to the care, or rather supervision, of her step-mother, Hester. Unfortunately the step-mother is interested in little more than financial gain from the relationship and when Anna leaves school, Hester refuses to pay for the return of her young ward to her native land. Stranded in England Anna makes ends meet working as a chorus girl, traipsing from grey seaside town to seaside town, all the while comforting herself with happy memories of the colours, sounds and smells of her West Indian home.

The action of the novel begins on a foggy cold street in Southsea, Portsmouth, where Anna and a friend, another chorus girl, are 'picked up' by two wealthy men. What follows is the seduction and betrayal of Anna by one of the men, Walter, and her subsequent mental unravelling. In parts 3 and 4 of the book, with Walter out of the picture, but not out of Anna’s mind, Rhys writes in a mode of such unparalleled beauty on the themes of breakdown and not-belonging that it makes you blink.

But it’s not only but for the skilled switches between Anna's conscious and sub-conscious mind as she voyages yet further into the darkness of mental illness that had me reading this book long into the night, but the intrigue Rhys imbues in her character, and the 'what will become of her?' quality she lends the same.

With the publication of WIDE SARGASSO SEA in 1966 Rhys became lauded as one of the most significant literary figures of the 20th century. I can only imagine that this, her fourth, book’s tough themes of social hypocrisy towards women and post-colonial identity politics, were the only reasons that she did not win similar plaudits with the publication of VOYAGE IN THE DARK in 1934.

Nina de la Mer

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