My second read for #ReadingRhys week was Good Morning, Midnight, a novel exploring the same kinds of themes as her first novel Quartet which I reviewed earlier this week. Published more than ten years after Quartet, it shows Rhys still concerned with the fate of the single, lone woman, vulnerable and isolated.
Good Morning, Midnight is every bit as affecting and powerful as Quartet, for the life Rhys portrays is bleak. Here is the world of the dispossessed, the powerless, the damaged and those who damage. It is a world of shabby, colourless rooms in hotels where no one would stay if they had any other choice.
Our narrator is Sophie (Sasha) Jansen, a woman a little older than Marya in Quartet, she has returned to Paris from London. She has failed at a series of unsatisfying jobs since leaving her former profession of mannequin. Early in the novel we witness Sasha abruptly leave her job as a shop assistant in a dress shop. She seems powerless to stick up for herself, walking away with barely a murmur. Everything she might say remains locked inside.
“You, who represent Society, have the right to pay me four hundred francs a month. That’s my market value, for I am an inefficient member of Society, slow in the uptake, uncertain, slightly damaged in the fray, there’s no denying it. So you have the right to pay me four hundred francs a month, to lodge me in a small, dark room, to clothe me shabbily, to harass me with worry and monotony and unsatisfied longings till you get me to the point when I blush at a look, cry at a word.”
Now she is considering drinking herself to death and dying her hair blonde.
Sasha’s room is a sad, dispiriting place. Her neighbour who strides around in a long white dressing gown un-nerves her, but really this room so representative of her life, is just one in a long series of such rooms. Needing to appeal to friends in England for money, the fur coat she wears the only sign of better times.
“A room is, after all, a place where you hide from the wolves. That’s all any room is.”
Sasha’s story moves back and forth in time, her perspective shifting from her time in London to her time in Paris, from the time she was married, to the time she is alone again. Her life in Paris moves between a variety of cafes and bars, places where she is known, some she wants only to avoid, and places where she encounters the men with who only succeed in making her lonelier than ever. We find her sobbing in public, uncomfortable in the presence of strangers. Yet her position toward the bottom of this society lends her an empathy with the dispossessed or vulnerable people she meets. Perhaps in them she recognises something of herself.
“My life, which seems so simple and monotonous, is really a complicated affair of cafés where they like me and cafés where they don’t, streets that are friendly, streets that aren’t, rooms where I might be happy, rooms where I shall never be, looking-glasses I look nice in, looking-glasses I don’t, dresses that will be lucky, dresses that won’t, and so on.”
From the start we sense a tragedy lurking in the past, and a hopelessness in her future, Sasha is a woman who is lost, she feels out of step with society. Continually telling herself that she must do this or that in order to be like everyone else, she manages nevertheless to be always out of step with the society she sees around her. The men she meets now or has in her past are men who can only ever hurt her. Men like her husband Enno, and drifters like the gigolo and the Russian artists she encounters.
In many ways Good Morning, Midnight hasn’t very much in the way of plot, but it doesn’t really require one. Rhys’s portrayal of desolation is tinged with dark humour, but it is the hopelessness which remains. Sasha is one of the faceless members of society that those whose lives are going well don’t really notice, she exists only on the edges.
As with Quartet I found Rhys’s depiction of a broken woman to be brutally poignant. Sasha’s voice is cynical and immediately chilling.
Strangely, perhaps I finished this novel sitting in a café bar alone, eating my evening meal and waiting for friends (I was early, I always am). It was a suitable place, although the novel itself ends – for me at least – with a shudder, that may haunt me for a little while.