Phillips’s shrewd move is to avoid the first-person singular of the memoir ... Because, in a significant way, this novel is only partially about Jean Rhys a.k.a. Gwendolyn Williams. Phillips is more interested in using the circumstances of Rhys’s life to explore concerns that he has made very much his own in previous works of fiction ... Phillips expertly conveys Gwen’s bafflement and dissociation from the 'English people' she finds herself among. It’s as if the only true, verifiable experiences of her life had been left behind in Dominica; everything else is somehow sham and threatening ... That the novel succeeds so well is a tribute to Phillips’s mastery of tone. Gwen is rarely referred to by name; it’s almost as if we’re reading a procedural statement rather than a story. Yet the point of view is rigidly confined to her, only very rarely shifting substantially, so we get a glimpse of Gwen as others see her ... Jean Rhys’s prose was famously scrupulous ... Caryl Phillips proudly upholds her standards in this austere, evocative investigation of a life caught 'somewhere between colored and white.' It is a novel of acute psychological empathy and understanding.
Through Phillips’ eyes, Rhys personifies the fading of the British empire. She is claimed like a resource then discarded when she becomes unpalatable. She lives like an exile in the place she was taught to think of, despite its distance, as home. She becomes something of an embarrassment to the wealthy men whose whims dictate her existence. It’s curious that Phillips skims over Rhys’ writing career, especially his omission of her affair with the English writer Ford Madox Ford ... What Phillips does instead is recreate the atmosphere in which Rhys found her voice as a writer: the lush tropical paradise seething with racial tension. The cheap hotel rooms and boarding houses where Rhys always seemed to have enough liquor but not enough to eat ... A View of the Empire at Sunset is a sympathetic and powerful portrait of an outcast seeking sustainability, as well as a searing indictment of the empire that abandoned responsibility for the people it uprooted and set adrift.
Like Rhys’s Caribbean intervention into Brontë’s English drama, A View of the Empire at Sunset is an act of homage as well as critique. Phillips, always a measured and careful writer, here mimics Rhys’s precise itemizations of the deprivations and humiliations of everyday life. His Rhys seems to have lost some of the wit and fury of the Rhys we know from her own novels, perhaps because it is hard for even a highly skilled pastiche to replicate the subtleties of a brilliant original, perhaps because Phillips wanted to give us a Rhys with the veil of her talent stripped away, a Rhys who exists at exactly the minute and trivial scale of middle-class English life—and most likely both ... to Phillips, Rhys is the scion of a class of overseers, distinguished only by the aberration of her talent and insight. He borrows her own technique of cold precision and uses it against her, a complicated act of love ... The feeling of homelessness experienced by Phillips’s meticulously imagined Rhys obliquely echoes the epidemic of loss that imperial ambition let loose upon the world.
Phillips' new novel is a mesmerizing, atmospheric story ... questionable is his choice, in this consummately literary novel, to write about Rhys' literary career only glancingly. He altogether elides her life-changing relationship with the writer Ford Madox Ford ... This omission is particularly puzzling given that writing saved Jean Rhys, who remains of interest precisely because she was able to channel her uneasy childhood, repeated disappointments in love, and miserable self-abasement and alcoholism into her fiction ... Phillips' view of the empire at sunset is not a pretty one. Social and racial stratifications and resentments cloud the atmosphere ... Yet there's beauty aplenty in Phillips' supple, often sensuous prose. Views from train windows of mist-shrouded farmland provide a pronounced contrast with the humid, blazing heat of Dominica, yet both express far more than climate.
Rhys unstitched Brontë to show a Caribbean view of Britain. Phillips continues that tradition, taking her life as representative of the British Empire rather than the exception ... Phillips’s prose is often formal and distant. One of Rhys’s great skills was to strip her writing of emotion, so that the sadness she portrayed comes across as sharp and aggressive rather than sentimental. Phillips veers in the opposite direction ... You are always aware that you are reading Phillips’s version of Rhys, Phillips’s version of England ... Reviews of the book have argued that Phillips’s Rhys is not always fair to the real one ... though ... A muted Rhys is a choice rather than a mistake ... Phillips’s real target is England itself ... In making Rhys just another blinkered Brit, Phillips may be saying more about the literary culture that has welcomed her than her books themselves. It’s in this small act of revenge that he best embodies the spirit of his subject.
...his depiction of her sad circumstances is sympathetic though narrow and often drab ... Rhys shaped her brutally stark vision of urban despair in a pared-back, deceptively artless style reminiscent of Hemingway and Dos Passos ... Mr. Phillips’s more formal prose can seem muffled in comparison. More frustrating, though, is his decision to skip over Rhys’s emergence as a writer. Rhys wrote constantly, if painstakingly, yet this side of her is entirely missing from the story. Indeed, 'Jean Rhys' is missing, as that was a pen name invented by Ford Madox Ford. (The novel uses her given name, Gwendolen Rees Williams.) The omission makes her seem distant and featureless, as though viewed through the wrong end of binoculars. It may be that Mr. Phillips’s real subject is the British Empire in decline, and Rhys’s bleak personal history has given him a mannequin on which to show its moth-eaten decadence, the moral stains on the sleeve of its dinner dress.
You won’t learn anything about her writing...but the Jean Rhys depicted in Caryl Phillips’ beguiling new novel...is not unlike the poorly treated and subjugated female characters from some of Rhys’ own books ... Readers of Phillips’ previous novels will recognize similar elements here, including the elegant formality of his prose and the criticisms of racism and colonialism. A View of the Empire at Sunset is a provocative portrait of one of the 20th century’s most enigmatic authors.
His closeness to his subject shows in his style and in the evidence of the rigorous research he did for the novel, which is a dream come true for anyone who has been to the archives; seeing those unsettling, scrawled sentiments of hers in narrative form is thrilling. For those readers who have not made the trip to Tulsa, Phillips offers a compelling and troubling portrait of a writer whose work explores the same kind of precarity and vulnerability that Philips depicts in Rhys herself ... What Phillips really captures in A View of the Empire at Sunset is not so much Rhys’s voice—her character rarely speaks aloud, and the narrative is sparing with her inner thoughts as well—but her eerie way of being in the world. The brushstrokes of this portrait are affective, and the palette is of muted feelings ... Phillips evokes a certain pathos for a woman just trying to get through life day by day and year by year ... Shifting smoothly between past and present tense throughout the novel, Phillips implies that imperial time is slippery and the present can shift into the past or vice versa at any moment.
What makes A View of the Empire at Sunset exemplary in its exploration of [several] controversial issues is Phillips’s nuanced and sensitive portrayal of the painful and haunting life of his central character, a woman who led a nonconforming life characterized by displacement, muddled identity, and precarious belonging ... Ultimately, A View of the Empire at Sunset is a delicate yet penetrating exploration ... If historical fiction is always an allegory for the present age in which it is written, Phillips’s latest novel has touched the ailing heart of our deeply troubled culture and society at large.
...sporadically brilliant ... Phillips’s use of Rhys’s life is capricious. We learn little about her writing and nothing at all about her relationship with Ford Madox Ford, her first editor. Instead, Phillips speeds the story past an impulsive first marriage to Jean Lenglet, and into Gwen’s reckless decision to marry the most forlornly chivalrous of all her gentlemen, a failed publisher (who has promised to promote her work) ... Phillips makes skilful use of Tilden-Smith as a prism through which to observe an angry, taunting sorceress; a woman who knows how to enchant and how to inflict pain. He watches Gwen flaunt herself, a naked Circe before a mirror ... Phillips ends a well-intended but mildly unsatisfactory novel by imagining a penitent Gwen weeding her Welsh father’s neglected grave—while proudly rejecting assistance from a well-meaning Negro ... Finally...Phillips tells us that Jean Rhys—a novelist whose work is known to be ferociously unsentimental— 'broke off a piece of her heart and gently dropped it into the blue water.'
This story is told mostly from Gwen’s perspective, but her inner life is never fully realized. A first love affair with a wealthy financier feels strangely uninhabited. A later abortion, which he pays for although it has nothing to do with him, is seen retrospectively and from his irritable perspective. The death of her first baby is again brief and retrospective. Her decision to abandon her small daughter to strangers also goes unexplored ... erhaps more puzzling, we do not venture into her creative mind. Consequently, Gwen is defined primarily in relation to the men who abandon, mislead and disappoint her. Phillips can be a lyrical, transporting stylist and his focus on Gwen’s displacement has profound thematic resonance. However, the fascinating, unhinged, alcoholic, furtively ambitious, self-destructive and brilliant 'Jean Rhys' remains offstage, howling in an attic somewhere, unseen and definitely not happy.
Phillips’ hypnotic interpretation of the first half of Gwen’s life is riddled with strategic lacunae, so that the sudden mention of her writing cracks the bitter gloom like a lightning bolt. Phillips’ bravura, empathic, and unnerving performance makes the real-world achievement of his muse all the more surprising and significant.
Instead of the usual chapters, he structures the book as a series of vignettes, 65 of them that reveal imagined glimpses into Rhys’s experiences. Phillips counts on the reader to string them together. Under his deft hand, the prose subtly implies more than it tells. Rather than a consistent narrative style, Phillips shapes the prose to reflect the stages of her life, from the powerless demimondaine to the outspoken feminist writer ... Though records indicate Rhys made such a journey [back to her home in the Caribbean], she never wrote about her experiences. This void provides Phillips with a fertile foundation on which to delve deeper into the themes of race, gender, and power ... Like each of the themes that Phillips examines, the struggles echo through the decades, never resolved, always recurring.
The prose is smooth and supple as we follow Gwen’s journey from a privileged, if conflicted, white colonial girl to the bitter, angry woman we meet in 1936 ... Phillips’s choice to bypass both the writing and her literary life is perplexing. Her notorious experience with her mentor, Ford Madox Ford, who provided her pen name, goes unmentioned, as does the fact that Leslie Tilden Smith, her beleaguered husband, played a great part in introducing Gwen/Jean to literary London and getting her first books published. It could be that Phillips is steering us to look into the negative spaces of the novel to fill in the gaps, making his writing assume centre position through what is not said. Or is it that every novel shapes itself to reveal the author’s truth? Phillips writes of a dying empire, laying bare the human cost. If to Gwen it all lies in decay—temps perdi, meaning lost or wasted time in patois—it is because there is no longer room for her; but the island, and its terrible beauty, will endure.
Race and colonialism are key themes, here...but their treatment is less thought-provoking [than in The Lost Child], in part because race and colonialism are such obvious factors in Rhys’ biography and her masterpiece. For instance, it comes as no surprise that young Gwendolen’s (this is the spelling Phillips uses) mother doesn’t want her to socialize with the child of 'Negro' servants, and Phillips’ depiction of the moment when Gwendolen is forever separated from her friend goes unexamined. Indeed, this novel is, for the most part, written in a blandly expository style, and it often veers dangerously close to cliché ... Phillips is under no obligation to make his protagonist sensational, of course, but he doesn’t even make her interesting.
The brief vignettes and small, disquieting moments from which Phillips crafts his story push against the epic grandeur its scope suggests. Though Rhys fans might be disappointed by Phillips’s decision to depict little of her literary development, they will appreciate the rich echoes of Wide Sargasso Sea, another novel of untamed 'misfit' women, colonial wreckage, the West Indies, and the power dynamics of gender and race. Phillips is at his best in this powerful evocation of Rhys’s vision, which illuminates both her time and the present.