Books | Good Morning Midnight by Jean Rhys
'Everything tender and melancholy - as life is sometimes, just for one moment.'
Good Morning, Midnight follows the escapades of Sasha Jansen, a middle-aged English woman returning to Paris after a prolonged absence. She brings with her the ghosts of an unhappy marriage, financial turmoil and the grief of losing a child. Struggling to take care of herself, she drifts through Paris drinking heavily, taking sleeping pills and trying to come to terms with a city that has caused her so much pain yet to which she still feels unequivocally connected.
‘Quite like old times,’ the room says. ‘Yes? No?’
There are two beds, a big one for madame and a smaller one on the opposite side for monsieur. The wash-basic is shut off by a curtain. It is a large room, the smell of cheap hotels faint, almost imperceptible. The street outside is narrow, cobble-stoned, going sharply uphill and ending in a flight of steps. What they call an impasse.
I have been here five days. I have decided on a place to eat in at midday, a place to eat in at night, a place to have my drink in after dinner. I have arranged my little life.
I read Rhys' 1939 modernist novel in the last year of my English Literature degree, and deemed the whole 4 years of my university career justifiable for the fact that it had brought this book into my life. The hallucinatory quality of the prose transported me into pre-war Paris, stumbling through the seedy bars and squalid streets as if I were Sasha myself.
What struck me most was the piercingly honest portrayal of a woman's battle with her demons and the tenderness with which Rhys depicts a fragile life plagued by depression. The plotless narrative, written as a stream of consciousness, shifts and darts between times and places, sobriety and inebriation, the public sphere of Parisian society and the private four walls of a hotel room. Rhys is such a skilled writer that the lack of plot is never confusing nor frustrating, and she expertly paints a rich and fertile emotional landscape.
The novel is also a portrait of addiction, despair and alienation. Sasha's position is worsened by her gender; she suffers from the stigma of insufficient money, socially unacceptable drinking habits and poorly judged relationships but all the more so for being a woman for which all of these are applicable. However much she tries, she can't grab hold of the loose threads enough to be what society expects of her.
Rhys invites us to observe but not judge; Sasha's drink-induced haze is punctured by moments of lucid self-reflection:
my beautiful life in front of me, opening out like a fan in my hand
We are encouraged to have faith in our narrator, despite her unreliability. Just as we think Sasha is leading us into the darkness, she pulls us back into the light one more time, still one more time. A more masterful portrayal of depression I am yet to read.