Jean Rhys, The Whistling Bird and other stories (1927-1978)

Rhys is one of those authors I’d always promised to read, but never actually read. Yes, I know, I’ve never read Wide Sargasso Sea. I’m missing out on something. But really: I’m afraid I’m not strong enough for this book. And this collection of short stories rather confirmed my feeling.

My interest for Rhys was awakened again last year when we heard an awesome documentary on BBC Radio 4 while traveling in the Cotswolds. It pointed out how depressed she had been.

I knew I was in for a rough ride with this collection of short stories, but I still had underestimated it. My, don’t ever read that book on a gloomy, rainy Sunday afternoon if you have personal problems or a blue mood! It will make you cry, at the very least.

This collection is made of about 20 stories, each of them mercifully quite short. They’re most about women, neglected, despised, miserable women. Fate is cruel to them; and friends, lovers, all those who should be helping them in difficult times are turning away with indifference. A good number of those stories are set in 1920s Paris (from the collection “The Left Bank”).

One story I appreciated more, perhaps because it was not completely hopeless, is “Learning to be a mother”, about a woman who gives birth under the rough guidance of Mme Laboriau, a private midwife who runs a small practice of labor and delivery in Paris. She suffers so much (and we don’t know if that child was desired) that she feels so love (or even no interest) for the baby at first. She is alone, afraid and rejects any glorification of motherhood. Yet we witness the progressive blooming of affection and love in the mother, which is quite moving.

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2 thoughts on “Jean Rhys, The Whistling Bird and other stories (1927-1978)

  1. I read her Wide Sargasso Sea a few months ago and was completely amazed by the beauty and power of her work-I now wish so much I could here the BBC broadcast you mentioned-have you read any of her other works?-thanks for your very informative post

  2. Poor Rhys. She was a tremendous writer, but so gloomy. DAvid Plante dedicated one third of his book Difficult Women to Rhys and i learned a lot. It made me appreciate her talent and pity her. Wide Sargasso Sea isn’t too terrible. Compared to her other work, I thought it was more interesting than depressing.

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