Cruel as the grave

Jean Rhys (1890–1979)

Till September Petronella
by Jean Rhys.
Penguin Modern: 13,
Penguin Books 2018

“Set me as a seal upon thine heart, as a seal upon thine arm: for love is strong as death; jealousy is cruel as the grave.” — Song of Songs, 8:6

This selection of four short stories of contrasting lengths have been well chosen, their semi-autobiographical nature spanning the author’s lifetime from a Caribbean childhood to an ill-advised revisit, their themes of alienation, loneliness and depression mirroring the author’s own experiences.

One might think such bleak writing might be of a nature best avoided, but the power of her simple yet expressive prose, seemingly artless but nevertheless exquisitely crafted, is hypnotic and at times dreamlike. I was captivated and felt, paradoxically, both protective and utterly useless: here was a human being expressing her hurt and sense of drifting and yet I was unable to help.

Three of the pieces are told in the first person, a fact which to me strongly suggests a degree of autobiografiction, and though the final piece — less than two pages long in this edition — is in the third person, almost as if she is standing apart from herself, sadly observing and grieving for the person that she was. In such a context it feels close to a form of literary disassociation.

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Mirages and breakdowns

Western Asia, 1936 (Bartholomew Atlas)

Agatha Christie,
writing as Mary Westmacott:
Absent in the Spring
HarperCollins 2017 (1944)

A few days before, an old school friend of Joan Scudamore had wondered “what, if you had nothing to do but think about yourself for days and days, you might find out about yourself.” And now that Joan finds herself in just that position, stuck in limbo waiting for a train, she learns that all that she’d assumed about her life and her family may not have been as she imagined.

Will the mental crisis she experiences, and the reevaluation of relationships that she undergoes, represent a sea change in her attitudes — or will she return to old ways of thinking despite all she has gone through?

In this psychological novel the author portrays a woman whose assumptions are profoundly challenged by isolation — well, she’s not totally alone, but she is the only European — and alone with her thoughts she finds them taking very unexpected turns.

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A box of dreams

The Box was of some very hard wood of a dense grain. It had been covered with shagreen, but the shagreen was black with age and sometimes worn away so as to show the wood beneath. Both wood and shagreen had been polished until they were as smooth as a polished metal.
— From Chapter Four, The Box of Delights

I now offer here what’s planned as my final thoughts on John Masefield’s fantasy The Box of Delights, though one shouldn’t say anything is actually final where thinking is concerned. These thoughts will focus on magic, on time and on space, and not just because these aspects are interconnected.

When I consider the magic in the novel I think of the materials — the Box itself and the Elixir of Life, principally — and the types of magic that seem to manifest in the narrative. In terms of time and space I want to highlight when exactly Masefield sets both this story and its predecessor The Midnight Folk, and where geographically speaking he imagines them happening.

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