Quartet by Jean Rhys

“There she was and there she stayed. Gradually passivity replaced her early adventurousness. She learned, after long and painstaking effort, to talk like a chorus girl, to dress like a chorus girl and to think like a chorus girl – up to a point. Beyond that point she remained apart, lonely, frightened of her loneliness, resenting it passionately. She grew thin. She began to live her hard and monotonous life very mechanically and listlessly.”

An unsparing and piercing interrogation of passivity and victimhood, Quartet is a hypotonic work of fiction. Jean Rhys’ prose is immaculate. Her writing, although exquisitely crisp, has this deeply evocative quality to it that resulted in a truly immersive reading experience. I could picture with ease Marya’s various environments: from the hotel bedrooms she stays in, to the streets she walks down on. I admired Rhys’ ability to articulate Marya’s various states of mind with such clarity and finesse as to lend elegance to even her most petty thoughts. Although the setting has this subtle bygone, almost gilded age quality to it, one that brought to mind the work of Edith Wharton, Rhys also employs noir aesthetics that result in a backdrop that is at once beautiful and disenchanted.
Although the title suggests that the narrative will be concerned with the complex dynamic between four individuals, the story presents us with an all too familiar triangle: a young woman becomes involved with an older married man of means. His wife claims that she is ‘happy’ with this ‘arrangement’. But, as Marya becomes further enmeshed in the lives of the Heidlers, she becomes all too aware that the wife resents her presence. In order not to alienate her husband she pretends otherwise, and Marya finds herself cast in the role of villainess and homewrecker.

The novel opens in Paris during the 1920s. Marya, our heroine, is a young woman married to Stephan, a Polish man whose dodgy art dealings eventually land him in jail. The two were leaving from hotel room to hotel room, and once Stephan is imprisoned Marya finds herself on the verge of destitution. An orphan with no assets to speak of, Marya was wholly dependent on Stephan’s income. A socialite married couple, the Heidlers, come to her ‘rescue’, insisting that she stay with them. Marya does, even if she expresses some uneasiness at this arrangement. Mr Heidler, who goes by H. J., had previously made a pass at her and once she’s staying with them, he declares that he has feelings for her. According to him, his wife, Lois, is content with this. Marya learns that she’s not the ‘first’, and as the weeks go by and her feelings for H. J. deepened, she became wary of the Heidlers’ ‘games’. While Marya doesn’t have today’s vocabulary, contemporary readers will be able to recognise the Heidlers’ ‘tactics’: they manipulate and gaslight Marya. Passive Marya finds herself playing into this role that they’ve thrust on her, doing what they want, and keeping silent about this whole affair. Cleverly, Rhys doesn’t quite paint Marya as a hopeless and hapless victim of her sex and her circumstances. There are numerous instances that indicate that Marya performs this role of ‘victim’. But does her self-victimization make her any less of a victim? Especially when others uphold this view of herself?
While Rhys mines the psychological depths of her heroine, cataloguing her ennui, misery, loneliness, and disorientation, she maintains a certain distance from her characters, Marya included. These characters retain a certain inscrutable quality: some of their actions may strike as bizarre, while their words often are full ambivalence. The characters retain this air of mystery that really complements the shadowy atmosphere of their world: from their soirées to their clandestine encounters in hotel rooms. There were many striking passages describing Marya’s environment. Her internal dialogue too is rendered in arresting detail, and however frustrating her naivete and passivity were I found sympathetic towards her ‘plight’. Her feelings towards H. J. are somewhat inexplicable, as she seems to fall in love with him just like that. While Marya thinks herself in love with him, I thought differently. Her infatuation reeked of desperation, and I too found myself viewing her as a victim of the Heidlers’, specifically H. J., deceptions. Time and again we are told that what Marya craves is happiness and safety, and after Stephan is in prison, she is so desperate that she is willing to believe that those things may come if she becomes H. J.’s ‘mistress’.
The novel also has a roman a la clef dimension as Marya’s embroilment with the Hedlers’ mirrors Rhys’ one with Ford Madox Ford and his wife Stella Bowen . While there were many sentiments that struck me for their presence and timelessness, particularly in relation to Marya’s ‘female malaise’, a few passages stuck out for the wrong reasons. An example would be a scene where Marya observes “a little flat-faced Japanese” drawing “elongated and gracefully perverse little women”…which…le sigh.

Initially, I was planning on giving this a high rating but the bathetic denouement left a lot to be desired. While I can appreciate how certain authors are able to continue their narratives after the central character has ‘exited’ the scenes, here the last few pages struck me as callous and unsatisfying. I would have almost found it more satisfying if Rhys had gone the Madame Bovary or The House of Mirth route, but there is a soap-opera worthy heated confrontation that did not feel particularly satisfying or convincing. While I appreciated how Rhys, similarly to Flaubert and Wharton, is not afraid to focus on how pathetic or silly or petty her characters are, that finale just didn’t do it for me.
Still, I can see myself re-reading this and giving it a higher rating in the future. I am definitely planning on reading more by Rhys as her writing is simply superb and I am always interested in narratives centered on alienated and perpetually perplexed young women.

Marya is a fascinating character who carries an air of impermanence, one that makes her all the more intriguing. Her impermanence also deepens the dreamlike quality of the narrative. There are many instances where her dreams seem to seep into her reality, making us wonder how reliable a character she is. As things take a downward turn, her moments dissociation intensify, her sadness and anxiety so overwhelming as to make her reality unendurable.


Some of my fave passages:

“She began to argue that there was something unreal about most English people.”

“Still, there were moments when she realized that her existence, though delightful, was haphazard. It lacked, as it were, solidity; it lacked the necessary fixed background. A bedroom, balcony and cabinet de toilette in a cheap Montmartre hotel cannot possibly be called a solid background”

“Marya, you must understand, had not been suddenly and ruthlessly transplanted from solid comfort to the hazards of Montmartre. Nothing like that. Truth to say, she was used to a lack of solidity and of fixed backgrounds.”

“[S]he felt a sudden, devastating realization of the essential craziness of existence. She thought again: people are very rum. With all their little arrangements, prisons and drains and things, tucked away where nobody can see.”

“She would have agreed to anything to quieten him and make him happier, and she was still full of the sense of the utter futility of all things.”

“Words thatshe longed to shout, to scream, crowded into her mind:‘You talk and you talk and you don’t understand. Notanything. It’s all false, all second-hand. You say what you’ve read and what other people tell you. You think you’re very brave and sensible, but one flick of pain to yourself and you’d crumple”

“It was a beautiful street. The street of homeless cats, she often thought. She never came into it without seeing several of them, prowling, thin vagabonds, furtive, aloof, but strangely proud. Sympathetic creatures, after all. There was a smell of spring in the air. She felt unhappy, excited, strangely expectant.”

“‘You’re a victim. There’s no endurance in your face. Victims are necessary so that the strong may exercise their will and become more strong. ’ ‘I shall have to go away,’ she decided. ‘Of course. Naturally. ’ Sleep was like falling into a black hole.”

“‘I’ve been wasting my life,’ she thought.‘How have I stood it for so long?’”

“She felt hypnotized as she listened to him, impotent. As she lay in bed she longed for her life with Stephan as one longs for vanished youth. A gay life, a carefree life just wiped off the slate as it were. Gone! A horrible nostalgia, an ache for the past seized her. Nous n’irons plus au bois; Les lauriers sont coupes. . . . Gone, and she was caught in this appalling muddle. Life was like that. Here you are, it said, and then immediately afterwards. Where are you? Her life, at any rate, had always been like that.”

“There they were. And there Marya was; haggard, tor-tured by jealousy, burnt up by longing.”

“Marya thought: ‘Oh, Lord! what a fool I am.’ Her heart felt as if it were being pinched between somebody’s fingers. Cocktails, the ridiculous rabbits on the wallpaper. All the fun and sweetness of life hurt so abominably when it was always just out of your reach. “

“Of course, there they were: inscrutable people, invulnerable people, and she simply hadn’t a chance against them, naive sinner that she was.”

“The Boulevard Arago, like everything else, seemed unreal, fantastic, but also extraordinarily familiar, and she was trying to account for this mysterious impression of familiarity.”

“‘My darling child,’ said Heidler with calmness, ‘your whole point of view and your whole attitude to life is impossible and wrong and you’ve got to change it for everybody’s sake.’ He went on to explain that one had to keep up appearances. That everybody had to. Everybody had for everybody’s sake to keep up appearances. It was everybody’s duty, it was in fact what they were there for. ‘You’ve got to play the game.’”

“She made a great effort to stop it and was able to keep her mind a blank for, say, ten seconds. Then her obsession gripped her, arid, torturing, gigantic, possessing her as utterly as the longing for water possesses someone who is dying of thirst. She had made an utter mess of her love affair, and that was that. She had made an utter mess of her existence. And that was that, too. But of course it wasn’t a love affair. It was a fight. A ruthless, merciless, three-cornered fight. And from the first Marya, as was right and proper, had no chance of victory. For she fought wildly, with tears, with futile rages, with extravagant abandon – all bad weapons. ‘What’s the matter with you?’ she would ask herself. ‘Why are you like this? Why can’t you be clever? Pull yourself together!’ Uselessly.”
​​
“A petite femme. It was, of course, part of his mania for classification. But he did it with such conviction that she, miserable weakling that she was,found herself trying to live up to his idea of her. She lived up to it. And she had her reward. ‘. . . You pretty thing – you pretty, pretty thing. Oh,you darling.”

“As she walked back to the hotel after her meal Marya would have the strange sensation that she was walking under water. The people passing were like the wavering reflections seen in water, the sound of water was in her ears. Or sometimes she would feel sure that her life was a dream – that all life was a dream. ‘It’s a dream,’ she would think; ‘it isn’t real’ – and be strangely comforted. A dream. A dream.”

“But when she tried to argue reasonably with herself it seemed to her that she had forgotten the beginnings of the affair, when she had still reacted and he had reconquered her painstakingly. She never reacted now. She was a thing. Quite dead. Not a kick left in her.”

‘You’ve smashed me up, you two,’ she was saying. That was pitiful because it was so obviously true. It was also in an obscure way rather flattering. She put her hands up to her face and began to cry.

“The next few days passed like a dream. Lovely days, fresh, and washed and clean. And the knowledge that this was the irrevocable end of their life in Paris made every moment vivid, clearly cut and very sweet. Those were strange days, detached from everything that had gone before or would follow after.”

“Heidler was saying in a low voice: ‘I have a horror of you. When I think of you I feel sick.’ He was large, invulnerable, perfectly respectable. Funny to think that she had lain in his arms and shut her eyes because she dared no longer look into his so terribly and wonderfully close. She began to laugh. After all, what did you do when the man you loved said a thing like that? You laughed, obviously.”

My rating: ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆

Woman, Eating by Claire Kohda

“I feel like giving up, lying down on this wall and closing my eyes and just doing nothing – not bothering to try to fit into the human world, not bothering to make friends and art, not bothering to source blood and feed myself.”


Woman, Eating is a great example of a good concept being let down by a rather lacklustre execution…it lacked bite (ba dum tss).

“I realised that demon is a subjective term, and the splitting of my identity between devil and god, between impure and pure, was something that my mum did to me rather than the reality of my existence.”

Woman, Eating is yet another addition to what I have come to think of as the ‘sad, strange, miserable young women’ subgenre. Kohda however does try to spice things up a bit by bringing into the mix vampirism: Lydia, our narrator, is in fact a vampire.

Lydia is not doing so well. Her mother is a Malaysian/British vampire, her father was a human. Lydia grew up with her mother and knows very little about her father (other than that he was Japanese and a famous artist). Her mother hates what they are and has tried to instil this same self-hatred into Lydia. But now her mother is in a hospice and no longer remembers who and what they are.
Lydia, alone for the first time in her life, moves into a studio space for young artists in London and begins working as an intern at an art gallery. In addition to navigating these new spaces and circumstances, Lydia has her hunger to preoccupy her. For some reason, she can’t find a way to get any pig blood and as the days go by she becomes increasingly hungry. She develops a sort of crush on Ben, a fellow artist in her building, but she isn’t sure whether it’s because she’s starved (and wants him as a snack) or whether it’s something more genuine. She can’t seem to bring herself to produce any more art and at the gallery is either mistreated or ignored. Worse still, the director of the gallery, Gideon, is also giving her some serious creepy predatory vibes.
Lydia is fascinated by human food and spends a lot of her time watching mukbangs, reading food recipes, and wondering how different food tastes. She reflects on her nature, if she has any of her father’s humanity or whether her mother is right and they are monsters. Her vampirism, which leads her to be obsessed with and averse towards human food, does read like a metaphor for an eating disorder. And the vampire trope does indeed lend itself to exploring alienation, as well as things such as EDs.

In an interview, Anne Rice described ‘the vampire’ as being ‘outside of life’, thus ‘the greatest metaphor for the outsider in all of us’. And Lydia struggles with her otherness, interrogating her own monstrosity and humanity. Additionally, Lydia is experiencing the fears and doubts that many people in their 20s do: what do you want to do with your life? What kind of job do you want? Where do you want to live? Are the things you want even an option to you? Lydia’s mixed ethnic heritage further exacerbates her sense of being ‘other’. Kohda addresses the kind of stereotypes and assumptions people make about those of whom are of East Asian descent. For example, a fellow artist in her building, and coincidentally Ben’s girlfriend, points out that because she’s Japanese people assume her work is ‘delicate’ (even when it is anything but). I would have actually liked more conversation on art than what we were given but still there are some thoughtful asides on modern art.

Lydia spends most of her narrative in a state of misery. Her self-hatred and hunger occupy her every thought…until she finds something (or something) to eat.
This was a relatable if depressing read. While a lot of other books from this ‘disconnected young women’ literary trend are characterized by a wry sense of humor, Lydia’s narration is devoid of any lightness. Her narration is unrelentingly miserable. This made her interior monologue, which makes up the majority of the novel, a bit of a chore to read through. Her navel-gazing was dreary and I often found myself losing interest in her introspections. The narrative felt oppressive, which in some ways does mirror Lydia’s lonely existence but it also makes her story repetitive. There were only three recognizable side characters, the others being little more than names on a page, and they all felt vague. Lydia’s mother was perhaps the most interesting figure but she mostly appears in flashbacks where she is preaching about their monstrosity and the danger of being discovered. Ben was a generic boy who came across as an only half-formed character (he only said things along the lines of “i don’t know..”). The gallery director…I appreciated how the author is able to articulate that specific type of unease (of an older man, possibly your colleague or superior, being ‘off’ towards you) that I am sure many young women (sadly) know. But then the role he plays was somewhat forgettable? He is there, to begin with, and then fades into the background only to appear at the very end.

The storyline lacked focus. It meandered without any clear direction. And this can work if your narrator is engaging or compelling enough but Lydia wasn’t. She was potable but pitying a character has never made me feel inclined to ‘read’ on to find out what happens to them.
Still, the author’s prose was fairly solid and certain passages even reminded of Hilary Leichter and Sayaka Murata (very matter of fact yet incredibly peculiar, especially when it comes to the ‘body’ or bodily functions: “My mum’s brain, which sits in a body just metres away from me now, must contain the memory of eating whole meals, of the feel of her body processing those meals, of tasting different flavours.” ).
The way vampirism operates in this world is not clear-cut and I think that really suited this type of story. I did question whether pig blood would be truly so hard to get ahold of and why Lydia didn’t try to get ahold of some other source of food sooner…

This novel did not make for a satisfying meal. I never felt quite sure whether I liked what I was being offered and then once it was over I found that I was still hungry. While I liked certain elements and the central idea, the story, plotline, and characters were different shades of average. More than once I found myself thinking that Lydia’s story would have been better suited to a shorter format (as opposed to a full-length novel). Still, even if this novel failed to leave a mark on me I look forward to whatever Kohda writes next).

my rating: ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆

Catherine House by Elisabeth Thomas

“I used to believe the house was haunted. Really, it was the other way around; the house haunted me.”

Turns out I actually love this now…?!

The first time I read this I was not impressed but this second time around…well, I loved it. It isn’t an easy book and I can sort of see why it could come across as frustrating…but if you are in the mood for a dreamy and ambiguous Gothic-y read you should consider giving Catherine House a go. If you are a fan of authors such as Shirley Jackson and Helen Oyeyemi, you will probably ‘vibe’ with this book. Speaking of vibes, I saw someone describe this as a book all about vibes and I have to agree. There is a strong focus on the atmosphere of Catherine House and Thomas pays particular attention to the smells and flavours Ines encounters in its walls. Throughout the narrative Thomas juxtaposes beauty with decay, and there were plenty of lush descriptions contrasting the two. Nature too has a role in this story and I loved how Ines describes the seasons.
I loved Ines and her ‘sideways’ perspective. Thomas beautifully articulates Ines’ conflicting feelings about Catherine House and I truly felt for her. I also loved her friendship group, often their scenes together eased some of the tension from the narrative.
Basically, this second time I loved everything about this novel: the eerie setting, the ominous nature of plasm, Ines, her friends, the beautiful writing, the dreamlike atmosphere…
I can’t wait to read this again (and maybe write a more cohesive review).

old review:

without its merits Catherine House is an ultimately predictable piece of Gothic fiction that tries to be the next Vita Nostra but doesn’t quite succeed. The novel is bogged down by slow pacing, an overly elusive story, populated by cast of barely fleshed out characters, and a painfully conventional dark academia type of ‘heroine’ (who is Not Like Other Girls & has a ‘dark’ secret related to her ‘mysterious’ past). It’s a pity as there were quite a few elements that I actually appreciated. Thomas writing is, for the most part, lush and she truly excels at Gothic atmosphere. She conveys the unease that pervades Ines’ stay at Catherine House and there are many passages that linger on her senses of smell and taste suggestive of the House’s ‘wrongness’. I particularly liked the use of repetition, be it through language or imagery.

Through a 1st pov, Catherine House follows Ines Murillo and her three years at Catherine House, a private university shrouded in mystery. We learn almost nothing about who she—or any other character for the matter—was before CH and this is due to the place’s strict rules about leaving one past behind. We are told that students have very few privileges and can earn more freedom through ‘points’ but Thomas never really expands on how these works, in fact, they matter very little. I would have preferred more descriptions about CH, its architecture and history, or anything really. By giving us very little information the place does acquire an air of ambiguity that does accentuate the narrative enigmatic tone. Condensing three years in one novel took away from the overall narrative. Ines’ time at CH was fairly repetitive and not particularly sinister. There is one ‘turning point’ of sorts towards the end of her first year but after that the narrative hits a plateau. Knowing more about the teachers and the lessons Ines attends would have made her time there more interesting. Instead, most of the story seems intent on setting up its Gothic aesthetics (beauty is terror and all that). Ines makes for a dull narrator. Everyone tells us she’s special and different (I did love the “my little sideways girl” line) but she’s anything but. She’s confused 24/7 and although she tells us that she wants to do this (learn CH’s secrets) or feels that (for a boy) it just didn’t reach me. Thomas tells us what her protagonist feels or wants to do but she fails to back this up by showing us that yes Ines feels sad, happy, or whatever else.
The novel implements Gothic tropes and many dark academia conventions. While I understand that the Gothic genre is derivative by its very nature (Pet Sematary > Frankenstein > Milton’s Paradise Lost + Promethean myth; The Historian > Interview with a Vampire > Dracula > Transylvanian folklore) I would expect a contemporary Gothic novel to be more subversive than Catherine House. There was no point in which I felt scared, surprised or apprehensive on Ines’ behalf. That is partly because I cared zilch about her or her supposed ‘friends’ (who seem a mere caricature of the typical academia clique of beautiful & languid people). I don’t think it’s a good sign when you care more about a secondary character’s pet snail than say any of the human characters.
It also struck me that novel was trying too hard to be something by Shirley Jackson. Hangsaman in particular came to mind. But, where I was intrigued by how obscure & unreliable a narrative Hangsaman is, I was unimpressed by Thomas’ novel directionless. It pulls the classic ‘confusing for the sake of being confusing’ shtick (whereas the ambiguity of Hangsaman struck me as a result of its mc’s dissociation from reality).
Yet, there were lines that I really liked (“I am in the house, we chanted. The house is in the woods. My hands are on the table. The table is in the woods.” did bring to mind Merricat’s “I put my hands quietly in my lap. I am living on the moon, I told myself, I have a little house all by myself on the moon.”). The dreamy quality that permeates Ines’ narration could also be effective in that it makes her more unreliable and it blurs the lines between reality and fantasy.
The ‘plasm’ was a big letdown. That and ‘the tower’ are meant to be the narrative’s main sources of tension but when Ines sees more of them…it just felt bathetic.
As debuts go Catherine House is a rather mediocre one. Thomas can clearly write well but story and character-wise her novel has little to offer. Catherine House itself needed more page time (rather than having so many paragraphs about Ines’ specialness, what she eats or smells). Thomas overplays how ‘sinister’ it is. Does weird shit go down in it? Sure but sometimes subtlety does the trick (the institutions in Magda Szabó’s Abigail and Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go felt far more oppressive & forbidding without them being exaggeratedly spooky a la CH). Ultimately Catherine House is a novel that choose style over substance. It delivers a perfectly Gothic atmosphere and some terrific lines but fails to provide anything more substantial. What was the point? Was this a story about wanting to belong? Of otherness? I don’t know and unlike with Hansgaman, I don’t care to revisit it in order to maybe find out. Still, I am curious to see what Thomas writes next. If you are the type of reader who exclusively—or almost exclusively—cares about aesthetics and ambience, well, you might be the right reader for Catherine House.

my rating: ★★★☆☆

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