Good morning, midnight

Don’t ever write sentences in fragments.

That’s got to be the primary advice anyone gives a writer. Even though it sometimes makes sense to break up a thought into shorter and snappier phrases. In a story, in particular, it helps convey the narrater’s emotions and thought process. 

But—

It’s still a fragment. Therefore, it warrants ceaseless scorning from those who label themselves as writing gurus and advocates of good writing. 

Well, tell it to Jean Rhys. Because she shoves her finger at all the writing rules I grew up reading and fearing I’d accidentally break.

Not long ago, a friend of mine handed me her copy of “Good Morning, Midnight” and declared it was a brilliant book. Oh well, I mused. This was, after all, a person who loved and cherished Jean Rhys as an author. Of course, she’s biased in her opinion of the story’s likeability.

I still chose to give my friend and her favourite author a chance. What’s the worst that could happen?

Jean Rhys was a Dominican-born writer who grew up and lived in England for the most part. I’d already read her Wide Sargasso Sea (and written about it), the prequel to Jane Eyre, and loved how complementary Rhys’ version was to Bronté’s. I enjoyed the mellow writing style, the sheer distancing between characters and their points of view, and the easy-to-read prose. Despite the sadness that leaps through the words, it’s still the kind of book you can read at a noisy bar without getting distracted.

And that’s what I expected when I opened “Good Morning, Midnight.” Something about the blurb of the book indicated to me that it’s the story of a prostitute, and I stepped into the narrative expecting depression, sadness, and self-hatred. Instead, Rhys threw at me a cold stream of consciousness—an account of incidents narrated so blandly that they jumped out at me. Conversations in reported speech. Reporting of meetings and bar scenes as if seen from the outside. It was a woman recounting her mundane existence in such chilling prose that grips you by the throat, leaving you gasping for air—a taste of what the character herself experienced at the time.

To say it’s a good book is an understatement. To say Jean Rhys has done a great job is a disgrace to her writing. Every scene is in the present tense, enhancing the realness of the situation. As a reader, you’re not listening to the story from someone who witnessed it. Instead, you’re in that moment looking into the mysterious life of this Pernod-driven woman who lands herself in pitiful circumstances without the least foreshadowing. Even though, as a reader, you’re aware you’re at a vantage point and that none of the ongoings can affect you, you do end up hurt—connecting with the protagonist, feeling her and the molasses-like darkness that engulfs her everyday life.

“But they never last, the golden days. And it can be sad, the sun in the afternoon, can’t it? Yes, it can be sad, the afternoon sun, sad and frightening.” 

Good Morning, Midnight – Jean Rhys

Jean Rhys brandishes excellent writing in your face, making you rethink every rule in the books. People cringe at repetition and incomplete thoughts. And yet, Jean takes it all along for a ride, plays around with regulations as they were a toddler, twisting and twirling, doing as she pleases.

And when you finish the book, you’ll realise Jean was an incredible writer. She not only captivates but also tells the story in a way that involves readers without involving the narrator. It’s quite a masterpiece. It’s a wonder why this book isn’t as celebrated as Wide Sargasso Sea.

What the hell am I’m trying to say? Just read the damn book, if not already. You won’t be sorry.

The Story of English in 100 Words

I love book titles that jump out at me. It’s not easy to think up an evocative phrase or name that’ll stand out in the mass of dusty shelves of non-fiction, hardly grazed by regular readers who’d rather wallow by a willow on the wonderful world of fiction.

That’s why The Story of English in 100 Words caught my eye. Even more thought provoking was the size of the book, for I’d thought even Frankenstein-like font wouldn’t require 200 pages for a 100-word book.

Good work, David Crystal. You had my attention. 

I flipped open the book to realise that the author had used misleading phrasing as a tactic to grip his reader—a curious use of the language he was just about to embark decoding. It wasn’t the story of English in 100 words, but rather the stories of 100 English words. 

And then it made sense. In a way, in a crude and uncanny way of speaking of words and usage, the author was right: by telling the stories of 100 exemplary words, he’d hoped to explore the evolution of English itself. So in a way, that title wasn’t such a bad choice.

Curious.

I’d have preferred a more direct one, though.

That said, the book is still an engaging read. As I browsed through the words and the narrative associated with each, I saw that the author had strayed away from strict research and technicalities to take a more relatable approach.

Here and there, strewn like breadcrumbs on lasagne, were the author’s observations about a certain word. For a student referencing it hoping to find matter for an assignment, the interjecting musings may be a hindrance, but for a language enthusiast who picked up the book because of its captivating title, they were fodder for thought.

For instance, 

We have to be especially careful when it comes to the adjective’ arsy’.

In Britain, the word means ‘bad-tempered’ or ‘arrogant’, as in “We get the occasional arsy customer in here.”

In Australia, the word has developed a positive meaning, ‘lucky’: “That was an arsy goal.”

It’s wise to pay special attention to who’s speaking before deciding what to make of “You’re an arsy bastard!”

Throughout the book are little gems like this that smile at you from behind the veil of informing. Of course, the author does record origins of the word where applicable, and the background story of how it fell into regular speak.

Words like doublespeak, Twitterverse, arsy, doobry, blurb, and a multitude of exciting others make you go, “huh,” and look away from the book to stare at the trees passing you as you sit on a long bus commute, thinking, mulling over what you just read. There’re stories about words like “muggle” and how J.K. Rowling toppled its meaning from a drugger—as was the accepted meaning in the 20th century—to mean a person without magical (or special) powers.

This is a lighthearted book. Though its an intense concept—exploring the history of certain quirky words and how life has folded them into our everyday batter and banter—the author does a great job of keeping it readable and level headed, even for the casual reader in the street. 

The other side

I was never a great fan of Jane Eyre. 

Like most people, I also read it in middle school, when I hadn’t quite developed the patience to endure or contemplate why Jane, who was so praised for being plain and relatable, was such a big deal. 

And I still don’t understand why her love for Rochester was such praiseworthy. After all, she did abandon him when she heard he’d had an unhappy marriage, only to run back to him when he almost died in the fire.

I grew up watching countless movies where the lead female character’s sole responsibility was to prance across the screen, showing off, triggering the men’s emotions, and then falling in love with them because they’re willing to die for love. If I didn’t know better, I’d say Jane Eyre, the book, was just another case of female objectification.

However, Jane Eyre, the character was something else. There were many moments in the story where I supported her decisions. I agreed when she raged at being kept in the dark about Bertha. And I believed she would’ve loved Rochester even she had known. Throughout the book, I was with Jane, but by the end of it, I wasn’t happy for her. Instead, I felt as if the story merited no merit. 

Of course, Bronte’s writing was so intense and beautiful in many aspects and I, by no means, belittle the book she produced. Regardless, for some reason, Jane Eyre remained incomprehensible to me because it lacked something. 

Then I read Wide Sargasso Sea. Written by Jene Rhys, this is a prequel to Bronte’s Jane Eyre.  

The story unravels the life of Bertha, Rochester’s wife. Written in her perspective initially, later shifting to Rochester’s, the book walks the reader through Antoinette’s (Bertha’s first name) disturbing childhood, her mother’s fate, her family’s wealth and the implications of being a Creole heiress. 

This background into Bertha’s life, in many ways, threw light into real Jane Eyre, the book. 

The only references and perspectives we get from Bronte about Bertha, come from a Rochester who’s already fallen out of love with her. When he speaks of her and narrates his life with her, he’s so welded in self-pity and sadness. And as readers of Jane Eyre, we naturally cultivate a disliking to this unwanted character that was forcefully placed in our hero’s life. Our opinions are biased to begin with, and that leads us to justify Bertha’s death as a favourable outcome for the protagonist. 

That’s the idea Jene Rhys challenges.

The more we learn about Bertha as a person (as opposed to Bertha as the madwoman), the more we realise the realities of life. Her entire existence was a series of events for which no one could be blamed for. There were no evil witches or antagonists attempting to disrupt her life. As a child, she lived by the rules, as a woman, she married as she was told, and as a wife, she tried her best to love her husband and seek his affection in return. She was the real plain Bertha. And yet, we see her life toppling into misfortune, dragging along an innocent Rochester. 

In fact, reading Jene Rhys’s story increased my affection for Rochester. The second half of the book is entirely in his perspective and we see, despite his helplessness, a genuine desire to help the woman whose life was tangled with his. We get a fuller picture of Rochester as a character. 

For me, that was the best part of Wide Sargasso Sea. Aside from addressing plenty of social and economic matters in the Caribbean and women’s health issues, this story completes the picture that Bronte paints in Jane Eyre. 

Perhaps now, when I re-read Jane Eyre, I’ll appreciate it more than I did the first time.

Incredible how powerful perspective is.

Self, thy name’s Esther

The first time I read a few lines attributed to her, I fell in love with Sylvia Plath. Thanks to the collection board that’s Pinterest, I discovered plenty of gut-wrenching, heart-clenching verses that Plath had written. Hooked, I went on a rampage of Sylvia stalking. Before I knew it, she’d become one of my favourite writers. I’d read about her curious suicide, and I’d watched Gwyneth Paltrow’s portrayal of her life. Her story strengthened my affection for her and somewhere between feeling respect and pity towards her, I found myself doting after her as well.

Wonderful though it all was, I’d become addicted to Plath despite reading none of her works in complete. That’s how I came upon The Bell Jar—guilt-ridden and hungry to prove to myself that I know the author I adored.

Before flipping through its pages, I didn’t know what to expect from The Bell Jar. Wanting to figure it out for myself, I read none of the reviews and asked no one I know what they thought of the story. As I began reading, I grew fascinated by the protagonist of the story, Esther Greenwood. The reason, I later realised, is that she’s in no way special. Unlike many other protagonists with their exceptional talents shining through print, Esther was simple in all sense.

The book opens with her in the middle of a writer’s scholarship—something I could appreciate as an aspirer myself. Little by little, as the story progressed, I found parts of myself relating to Esther. She reminded me of my deeper self—the unassuming, uninterested self that often prefers solitude, dabbling in self-doubt and incessant imposter syndrome.

It was later that, as the narrative turned to Esther’s psychological issues, I understood that Esther isn’t just me, but she’s every other person, too. Not only was her behaviour characteristic of me, but she was also an embodiment of the natural evolution of the teenage mind.

It’s not easy growing up, and it’s even more difficult when you’re alone and lacking guidance. That’s most of us. That’s Esther.

That’s why it became tough to separate myself from the character. I became so involved in her life that I wanted to see how each day of her life unfolded. As she cringed, so did I. As she ran away from accepting herself, as did I. I followed her every move, her every decision and instinct as if it would all affect my life in a way.

It was as if were in a vortex where Esther—who struggled to find her own way—would guide mine.

By the time I finished the book, I could do nothing but stare at the wall. I felt intense pleasure within me, a silent jubilation. Esther was recovering. She had hope in her life. Although the book didn’t affirm she found her utopia, it hinted toward it. And having gone through her life with her, relating her every moment with mine, I felt as if my own life would be fine after all. It was as if I’d ridden a roller coaster—dizzy and unsure of what I’d face next, weak in the knees with butterflies in my chest—but had come to a secure halt with my entire being intact.

I couldn’t talk about the experience for days after I’d read the book. I didn’t know how I felt, and finding the right words seemed herculean. But as time went by, my feelings also evolved. From seeing myself in Esther, without a conscious effort, I began relating everything I knew of the author’s personal characteristics with that of Esther Greenwood. Then it hit me that the author herself battled with depression and psychological issues. I began to revere Esther as much as I did Sylvia. And my respect for the writer increased when I understood that she had manifested herself in Esther, giving readers a hint of what she herself was going through during her lifetime.

What a wonderful way to express oneself. Also, a little sad.

Zorba: The unlikeable yet likeable

Zorba

You don’t often come across a book that inspires, confuses, and offends you at the same time. Zorba the Greek did all of that and more to me. Though I’d heard of the title before, I only pursued it because my brother recommended it. He’s not an avid reader, and so since he cherishes it, I guessed I would too.

Through the first few pages, I started to get bored. It seemed like any other fiction — a writer and his friend travelling abroad. It wasn’t clear where they headed or what they intended to do there. My only impetus to keep reading was the hope that a flash of interest would hit me as I turned some page. That page didn’t come for a long time, and I slacked in the mean time. Other priorities came up, and some days I just fell asleep even before opening the book.

It didn’t help that I was reading a misaligned PDF on a digital device. After eight hours at work, the idea of staring at the screen didn’t excite me. Regardless, I snuck in at least an hour on most days. Needless to say, it took me longer to read this than any other book. But that’s not because of these petty situations.

The real reason — I realised later — Zorba took me longer than I’d expected is because Zorba is an idiot. I couldn’t get my head round to like his weird personality that a world of avid readers adore. I hated him. Everything he says seemed to trivialise women, casting them as the weaker sex. He insisted on protecting and respecting a woman, and how when a man does all that, she’d offer herself to him like a slave. As if to prove his point, he takes advantage of a lone woman pining for love. He showers her with praises, gifts, and sweet talk until she falls in love with him and croons for marriage. I felt disgusted. And I couldn’t help but wonder why literature celebrates such an egomaniacal character.

As I read on, however, I realised that he wasn’t bad. Although his speech is fake, his intentions aren’t. As a reader at that point, Zorba’s character evolved so much, displaying an uncanny ability to express love toward the woman he’d seemed to have used. It was only as the story progressed to more aggressive scenes that I understood Zorba reveals his characteristics bit by bit, and it’s almost impossible to assess him midway through the book.

Not only does he express his care for the woman he’d seduced, but he also shows empathy as he fights for and defends another woman who the townsfolk mauled. To me, Zorba then rose from manipulative to compassionate.

While it’s the underlying characteristic I gauged from the narrative, throughout the book Zorba does other little things that hard to hate. Where we speak our mind, Zorba’s unique attraction is that he dances, instead. His playing the santuri, living as if he’d die at any moment, working like a dog, his extensive philosophy of existence—everything of his everyday habits is aspirational to say the least.

“Luckless man has raised what he thinks is an impassable barrier round his poor little existence. He takes refuge there and tries to bring a little order and security into his life. A little happiness. Everything must follow the beaten track, the sacrosanct routine, and comply with safe and simple rules. Inside this enclosure, fortified against the fierce attacks of the unknown, his petty certainties, crawling about like centipedes, go unchallenged. There is only one formidable enemy, mortally feared and hated; the Great Certainty.”

As page after digital page I flipped, I admired Zorba. I still hate that he patronises women and is shameless in thrusting his opinions on others. Regardless, I saw that while Zorba is everything that’s wrong with humankind, he’s also everything that humankind should persevere to become. Not only is Zorba’s character flawed, but it’s also philosophical—a realistic portrayal of human qualities. As I shut the book, I felt as if I’d spent my time in the company of an ordinary human—one who’s good and flawed. In the end I’ve acquired the ability to see through both qualities in Zorba, and still respect him for himself. It’s as if I now can discern the difference between an opinion and the person who holds that opinion. After all, opinions change, people often don’t.