Twenty years after her death, Jean Rhys continues to provoke controversy over the question of Caribbean identity. Barbadian writer Kamau Brathwaite describes her as "the Helen of our wars", an epithet used by Elaine Savory to head the final chapter of this fascinating new study. The implication of Brathwaite's metaphor, namely the appropriation of Rhys by the metropolitan academy, represents a distinct shift from his 1974 statement in which he alluded to Rhys's white creole identity as excluding her from the canon of West Indian writing. The central thesis of Savory's book is that Rhys's entire oeuvre only makes sense when seen in relation to Dominica, where she spent the first 17 years of her life.
Most early critics of Rhys's novels noted their exploration of an isolated, fragmented and cosmopolitan consciousness. As a protege of Ford Madox Ford - Rhys's Quartet is based upon this relationship - her fiction seemed to belong uncomplicatedly to the mainstream of European modernism. The Caribbean subtext was largely unnoticed. Rhys herself deliberately erases the cultural identity of her heroines while leaving subtle hints: carnivalesque wordplay, masks, and the omnipresent consciousness of race. As Savory points out, this erasure of identity is paralleled by Rhys's technique as a writer. Through her examination of the rough drafts and other unpublished material in the Rhys archive at Tulsa, Savory provides a valuable account of how Rhys transformed autobiographical fragments, written as therapy, into spare, skilfully constructed narratives that contain clusters of significant images that give the texts a haunted, almost Gothic feel.
Rhys's novels famously depict women who are exploited and manipulated by men and explore the racial animosities engendered by colonialism, but in the last analysis they elude the universalising and sometimes reductive categories of feminist or post-colonial theory. Their "message", as this study shows, is indeterminate and anarchic. Savory acknowledges what she terms the "productive contradictions" in Rhys. In an interview with David Plante, Rhys was both breathtakingly racist and loudly anti-feminist.
Savory makes a convincing case for Rhys's importance as a short-story writer. On re-reading some of them that are set in the Devon countryside, I was impressed by their affinities with the V. S. Naipaul of The Enigma of Arrival . Savory views Rhys as a precursor of the many writers who have explored Caribbean identity from the perspective of expatriation. But like Naipaul, and unlike, say, Samuel Selvon, George Lamming or Andrew Salkey, her relationship to the West Indies is complicated and fraught.
This is a meticulously researched volume which brings into "productive contradiction" the many conflicting interpretations of a writer once described by Al Alvarez (presumably without irony) as "the best living English novelist".
Ronald Warwick was formerly literature officer, Commonwealth Institute.
Author - Elaine Savory
ISBN - 0 521 47434 5
Publisher - Cambridge University Press
Price - £35.00
Pages - 306