A Gift to a Writer: After Leaving Mr Mackenzie by Jean Rhys

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Since I first picked up a copy of Jean Rhys’s novel in my late teens, I have pressed it on a number of people. I say pressed, because I’m not sure it’s always been a welcome recommendation, the response often being that it’s depressing.

This is a valid comment, and each time I’ve returned to the book over the years I’ve found it sadder than I did on the previous reading. But there are flashes of dark humour there too, in Rhys’s wry observations, and her sharp-drawn depiction of the titular Mr Mackenzie’s pomposity.

What really attracts me to After Leaving Mr Mackenzie, though, is the unaffected beauty of the writing. Rhys’s second published novel came out in 1931 and the story is firmly of its era, but the unfussy, hypnotic prose retains a freshness that’s stood the test of time.

I have thought about buying this book for you before, Emma Claire, but have always held back – perhaps because a favourite book can come to seem like a part of your own history. Unreasonable as it is, it’s hard not to take it as a personal slight if your friend then goes and tells you they didn’t like it.

But I think – I hope – you will like it, because you have such a musical ear. You’re always picking out riffs and melodies within written stories, or even spoken conversations, which other people might not care about, or miss.

Set in grey London and Paris, After Leaving Mr Mackenzie – the story of a woman who has, in reality, been left by yet another man – lacks the lush imagery of Rhys’s much-lauded later novel Wide Sargasso Sea. Neither is it as formally inventive as Goodnight Midnight (although I like it the better for that).

But there is an integrity about this novel that I love. To read it is to be transported to dingy hotel rooms and low-lit streets, and shabby bars that reek of quiet desperation, all rendered by the author with a unique kind of beauty.

But my main reason for choosing After Leaving Mr Mackenzie as this month’s gift is this:

When I discovered this book, it changed the way I thought about writing forever.

It showed me that a good novel could be about much more than a gripping plot and characters that linger long in the mind, or even a beguiling setting or atmosphere.

From Rhys I learned that good writing could sing a song to its reader. In this case, it’s a melancholic song about half-broken things, but – knowing of your literary tastes, Em – I wonder if you might like it all the more for that?

 

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