cover image A View of the Empire at Sunset

A View of the Empire at Sunset

Caryl Phillips. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $26 (336p) ISBN 978-0-374-28361-2

Following The Lost Child, Phillips’s haunting novel centers on the life and work of Jean Rhys, born Ella Gwendolyn Williams and most celebrated for her novel Wide Sargasso Sea. The story opens in 1930s London, as the author and her second husband, Leslie Tilden Smith, plan a voyage to the West Indies. Jean hopes that showing Leslie her birthplace will help him understand her sense of alienation; Leslie wants to soothe his wife’s coldness and alcoholic caprice. The trip still pending, Phillips shifts to his protagonist’s childhood as the daughter of a Welsh doctor and a Creole mother in the Dominican city of Roseau. Sent from her beloved homeland to England for schooling at 16, the wayward and homesick Gwennie has an incomprehensible accent, “mongrel” looks, and the persistent unease of an outsider. A string of marginal careers and unsatisfactory relationships, two children lost in different ways, and an emerging talent for fiction lead to her meeting with Leslie, an agent who appreciates her writing. Closing the novel and bringing its narrative full circle, the couple’s trip to the Caribbean is in equal measure revelatory and futile. The brief vignettes and small, disquieting moments from which Phillips crafts his story push against the epic grandeur its scope suggests. Though Rhys fans might be disappointed by Phillips’s decision to depict little of her literary development, they will appreciate the rich echoes of Wide Sargasso Sea, another novel of untamed “misfit” women, colonial wreckage, the West Indies, and the power dynamics of gender and race. Phillips is at his best in this powerful evocation of Rhys’s vision, which illuminates both her time and the present. (May)