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A View of the Empire at Sunset
Cover of A View of the Empire at Sunset
A View of the Empire at Sunset
A Novel
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Award-winning author Caryl Phillips presents a biographical novel of the life of Jean Rhys, the author of Wide Sargasso Sea, which she wrote as a prequel to Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre.

Caryl Phillips's A View of the Empire at Sunset is the sweeping story of the life of the woman who became known to the world as Jean Rhys. Born Ella Gwendolyn Rees Williams in Dominica at the height of the British Empire, Rhys lived in the Caribbean for only sixteen years before going to England. A View of the Empire at Sunset is a look into her tempestuous and unsatisfactory life in Edwardian England, 1920s Paris, and then again in London. Her dream had always been to one day return home to Dominica. In 1936, a forty-five-year-old Rhys was finally able to make the journey back to the Caribbean. Six weeks later, she boarded a ship for England, filled with hostility for her home, never to return. Phillips's gripping new novel is equally a story about the beginning of the end of a system that had sustained Britain for two centuries but that wreaked havoc on the lives of all who lived in the shadow of the empire: both men and women, colonizer and colonized.

A true literary feat, A View of the Empire at Sunset uncovers the mysteries of the past to illuminate the predicaments of the present, getting at the heart of alienation, exile, and family by offering a look into the life of one of the greatest storytellers of the twentieth century and retelling a profound story that is singularly its own.

Award-winning author Caryl Phillips presents a biographical novel of the life of Jean Rhys, the author of Wide Sargasso Sea, which she wrote as a prequel to Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre.

Caryl Phillips's A View of the Empire at Sunset is the sweeping story of the life of the woman who became known to the world as Jean Rhys. Born Ella Gwendolyn Rees Williams in Dominica at the height of the British Empire, Rhys lived in the Caribbean for only sixteen years before going to England. A View of the Empire at Sunset is a look into her tempestuous and unsatisfactory life in Edwardian England, 1920s Paris, and then again in London. Her dream had always been to one day return home to Dominica. In 1936, a forty-five-year-old Rhys was finally able to make the journey back to the Caribbean. Six weeks later, she boarded a ship for England, filled with hostility for her home, never to return. Phillips's gripping new novel is equally a story about the beginning of the end of a system that had sustained Britain for two centuries but that wreaked havoc on the lives of all who lived in the shadow of the empire: both men and women, colonizer and colonized.

A true literary feat, A View of the Empire at Sunset uncovers the mysteries of the past to illuminate the predicaments of the present, getting at the heart of alienation, exile, and family by offering a look into the life of one of the greatest storytellers of the twentieth century and retelling a profound story that is singularly its own.

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About the Author-
  • Caryl Phillips is the author of numerous works of fiction and nonfiction including Dancing in the Dark, Crossing the River, and Color Me English. His novel A Distant Shore won the Commonwealth Writers' Prize, and his other awards include a Lannan Foundation Award, a Guggenheim Fellowship, and Britain's oldest literary award the James Tait Black Memorial Prize. He is a fellow of the Royal Society of Literature and lives in New York.
Reviews-
  • Library Journal

    December 1, 2017

    Just as Jean Rhys's Wide Sargasso Seareimagines the life of Bertha, the in-the-attic first wife of Mr. Rochester in Jane Eyre, so Phillips (The Lost Child), winner of PEN Open Book and James Tait Black Memorial honors, reimagines the life of Jean Rhys. Himself born in St. Kitts, Phillips traces Rhys's life from her birth in Dominica to her miserable years in Edwardian England and return in 1936 to her beloved Caribbean home. In the process, he addresses fraught issues of colonization.

    Copyright 2017 Library Journal, LLC Used with permission.

  • Publisher's Weekly

    Starred review from March 5, 2018
    Following The Lost Child, Phillips’s haunting novel centers on the life and work of Jean Rhys, born Ella Gwendolyn Williams and most celebrated for her novel Wide Sargasso Sea. The story opens in 1930s London, as the author and her second husband, Leslie Tilden Smith, plan a voyage to the West Indies. Jean hopes that showing Leslie her birthplace will help him understand her sense of alienation; Leslie wants to soothe his wife’s coldness and alcoholic caprice. The trip still pending, Phillips shifts to his protagonist’s childhood as the daughter of a Welsh doctor and a Creole mother in the Dominican city of Roseau. Sent from her beloved homeland to England for schooling at 16, the wayward and homesick Gwennie has an incomprehensible accent, “mongrel” looks, and the persistent unease of an outsider. A string of marginal careers and unsatisfactory relationships, two children lost in different ways, and an emerging talent for fiction lead to her meeting with Leslie, an agent who appreciates her writing. Closing the novel and bringing its narrative full circle, the couple’s trip to the Caribbean is in equal measure revelatory and futile. 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.

  • Kirkus

    April 1, 2018
    Another novel with a Brontë connection from the award-winning British author.Long before she became known for writing the feminist classic Wide Sargasso Sea, the author Jean Rhys was a girl named Ella Gwendolyn Rees Williams. Phillips begins his fictional account of Rhys' life with her childhood on the island of Dominica, in the British West Indies. In his last book, The Lost Child (2015), Phillips used Wuthering Heights as the inspiration for a modern story about race and colonialism. The connections between Emily Brontë's life and work and Phillips' own novel were both rich and subtle. Race and colonialism are key themes, here, too, but their treatment is less thought-provoking, 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. Also, Phillips makes the stylistic choice to refer to his protagonist only as "she" (except when other characters refer to her in dialogue), regardless of any interfering antecedent, and there are many instances in which this is confusing, even for the reader who's learned to expect it. After The Lost Child, this novel is a bit of a letdown. This is surprising, too, because Rhys led an undeniably unusual life. After she left home--at her parents' insistence--for England at the age of 16, she studied acting. She spent much of the 1920s in Paris. She had numerous lovers and three husbands. And her oeuvre, though small, has been hugely influential, especially for female writers and academics. Phillips is under no obligation to make his protagonist sensational, of course, but he doesn't even make her interesting. We get that Gwen is high-strung. We watch as she endures disappointments and tragedies. We see all this as if from a distance. There's no depth here.A lackluster novel from a great writer.

    COPYRIGHT(2018) Kirkus Reviews, ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.

  • Booklist, starred review "Distinguished novelist and essayist Phillips explores with rigor and artistry the ever-after effects of the toxic double-helix of racism and imperialism embodied in the African diaspora in the Caribbean, England, and America . . . a daring fictionalization. . . hypnotic . . . Phillips' bravura, empathic, and unnerving performance makes the real-world achievement of his muse all the more surprising and significant."
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A View of the Empire at Sunset
A Novel
Caryl Phillips
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