After Leaving Mr Mackenzie by Jean Rhys is the third novel in the compilation book I’m reading as part of my Fifteen in 2011 and also as part of the BISHRBN Challenge. In the introduction of Jean Rhys: The Complete Novels, Diane Anthill says that Voyage in the Dark and Quartet are both loosely autobiographical but Rhys argued that Leaving Mr Mackenzie is not. I can understand her need to explain herself because in many ways this novel seems to build upon similar themes of the previous two. And although the three women in each novel are given different names, their experiences are practically strung together as if in a single narrative.
In this novel, we meet Julia, a woman who is older and living on a precarious edge. Financially supported by a former lover, she is dismissed early in the story and must face the brutality of her situation. Having flouted convention, she comes to realize too late that age is not kind and she can no longer hope to survive on looks alone.
Without wanting to give away too much, she is confronted at one point by the path she did not choose to take in the person of another character. Would she have been happier if she had done what others considered proper? Would she be more admired or loved? And what do the answers to these questions do to determine the path of her life’s future?
This novel, unlike the previous two, has the brutality of florescent lighting. If Anna (in the first novel) is portrayed in a complimentary candlelight and Marya (of the second) is at least in a softly lit pink light, Julia is standing naked and exposed. There’s nothing flattering in this character’s portrayal. I am fascinated by how Rhys manages to write about a character in so relentless a manner. Did she have no sympathy for this woman? Was she, perhaps, brutalizing herself, or who she might have been if circumstances had not been different for her? I take her at her word when she says this is not even remotely semi-autobiographical but, given how it seems to so seamlessly flow from the previous two self-inspired novels, it is a curious thing to think about how this one has been informed by her own imagination and, possibly, her own fears about what might have been if not for happenstance.
I am sorry it took me so long to get around to reading this book because I’m clearly enjoying it very much. No, it is not light or necessarily fun to read but it is so engaging, so interesting, and, yes, so very compelling that I find myself consuming the stories almost as soon as I begin them with a ravenous appetite. Next, Good Morning, Midnight.