The Blue Hour: A Portrait of Jean Rhys, By Lilian Pizzichini

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The Independent Culture

Jean Rhys's favourite perfume was named L'Heure Bleue, and this melancholic scent featured in her first novel, Quartet, worn by a brave young female, the heroine breathing in the scent, hoping that she can absorb some of her rival's self-possession. This atmospheric biography captures not only the scents, but also the textures and colours that filled the complex life of the novelist.

In her author's note, Lilian Pizzichini describes her gratitude to Carole Angier's 1991 biography, Jean Rhys: Life and Work, but explains that in The Blue Hour, she takes a different approach. Whereas Angier finally diagnosed Rhys as a "borderline personality", Pizzichini argues that Rhys was an unconventional woman tormented by her inability to conform. Rather than judge her, Pizzichini presents the facts gleaned from Rhys's writing to create an impression of what it might have been like to live that life.

Born Ella Gwendoline Rees Williams in 1890 in Dominica, Rhys was the descendant on her mother's side of a wealthy slave owner. Named after her two dead sisters, she felt like the ghost of those babies, and the pale, timid, languid child, known then as "Gwennie", felt like an outsider in her own family. Even as she made the long journey across the Sargasso Sea to Europe, she remained haunted by a sense of loss.

Rhys's earliest memory was of her mother bending over her crib, but this closeness was soon lost, and their ruptured mother-daughter relationship is well explored in this book as the root of the loneliness of both girl and woman.

Pizzichini conjures a childhood of fear (not only of lizards and cockroaches, but of abandonment) and an adulthood of failed marriages and books until her late triumph. And Pizzichini's greatest achievement is turning us from the problematic life to the powerful literature.