You won’t learn anything about her writing—the novel never mentions the title by which most readers know her, or any of her other works—but the Jean Rhys depicted in Caryl Phillips’ beguiling new novel, A View of the Empire at Sunset, is not unlike the poorly treated and subjugated female characters from some of Rhys’ own books, among them Wide Sargasso Sea and Voyage in the Dark.
Phillips, a native of the Caribbean island of St. Kitts and author of 2015’s magnificent The Lost Child, begins his tale in 1930s London. Gwendolen Williams (Rhys’ birth name) is unhappily married to her second husband, literary agent Leslie Tilden Smith. He has recently received a legacy from his late father. With the money, in the hope of repairing their relationship, he suggests a trip to Gwennie’s West Indies homeland, “for he understood how desperately she wished once again to see her birthplace.”
From there, the novel goes back in time to Gwennie’s childhood on the island of Dominica. A series of vignettes follow her into adulthood and dramatize “her mother’s irrational fear of Negroes”; her time at a Cambridge boarding school, where English classmates ask questions such as, “Do you have monkeys in your family? I mean as relatives, not pets”; her attempts at a stage career; her relationships with many suitors; and her marriage to journalist Jean Lenglet, with whom she spends the 1920s in Paris and has two children, including a boy who dies at three weeks.
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.