I Used to Live Here Once – the biography takes its brilliantly apt title from one of Rhys’s ghost stories – is shot through with madness...Half its cast are half crazy, and most of the rest are as creepy as hell...Liars and fraudsters, bigamists and bolters, grifters and gropers: they’re all here, though Seymour has a special line (because her subject attracted them) in the kind of literary stalker whose pulse races furtively at the sight of an old woman with a bad wig, a whisky habit and (just perhaps) a half-finished manuscript in a drawer...Some readers will relish it when Rhys is to be found in Paris, hanging out with notable bohemians...But it’s the second half of the book, in which she is old and 'potty' and half-cut, that is Seymour’s triumph...The narrative has the tension of a thriller as Rhys struggles to finish Wide Sargasso Sea, and once she has been rediscovered, there are the shabby hotels she haunts; the jaunts with Sonia Orwell and Diana Melly; the literary hangers-on who call for tea...Here is the poet Al Alvarez flirting with her, and here is the memoirist David Plante preparing to stitch her up (the portrait of a sodden Rhys in his book Difficult Women is among the most chilling things I’ve ever read).
... illuminating and meticulously researched ... paints a deft portrait of a flawed, complex, yet endlessly fascinating woman who, though repeatedly bowed, refused to be broken ... Following dismal reviews of her fourth novel, Rhys drifted into obscurity. Ms. Seymour’s book could have lost momentum here. Instead, it compellingly charts turbulent, drink-fueled years of wild moods and reckless acts before building to a cathartic climax with Rhys’s rescue, renewed lease on life and late-career triumph ... is at its most powerful when Ms. Seymour, clear-eyed but also with empathy, elaborates on Rhys’s woes ... Ms. Seymour is less convincing with her bold claim that Rhys was 'perhaps the finest English woman novelist of the twentieth century.' However, she does expertly demonstrate that Rhys led a challenging yet remarkable life and that her slim but substantial novels about beleaguered women were ahead of their time ... This insightful biography brilliantly shows how her many battles were lost and won.
The best biographies marry the talents of a perceptive biographer and a complicated subject. In Miranda Seymour's new biography of British writer Jean Rhys, readers will find a perfect match ... a compassionate and unflinching portrait of a renegade of tenacity and talent, for whom writing was the best and only thing. Everything else was a complication.