The Book that Inspired Me

`WIDE SARGASSO SEA' BY JEAN RHYS
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I'M A born-and-bred Londoner who tends to long for exotic, damp, leafy places. I love Soho's sleazy haunts, and I once lived in a hard- to-let council flat in Peckham Rye. So it was inevitable that the one- time chorus girl and artist's model, Jean Rhys, who was born on the Windward Isle of Dominica in 1890 and later migrated to Peckham, where she was continually being arrested for drunk and disorderly behaviour, would appeal to me.

I first read Wide Sargasso Sea at the age of 19, immediately after my umpteenth, feverish reading of Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre. Rhys's story is even more appealing to romantic teenagers; each page is steeped in uncontrollable passion and terrifying mystery.

In it, Rhys takes the mad, much-maligned Mrs Rochester back to her childhood home of Dominica, and wreaks a sinister tale of incipient madness and corruption in the fetid, bejewelled rainforests that swamp the island.

It inspired me with visions of a Caribbean haven replete with secret hideaways and buzzing with furtive, mixed-race liaisons. And, indeed, as I was to find out much later, there are such places in Dominica: The Stinking Hole, for example, nearby Fond England Falls, where thousands of bats frolic in a deep crevice in the forest floor. I found my dream island to be full of sulphurous pits fed by subterranean springs. Fertility is tinged with a rank stench here, just as it is in the novel.

Rhys's masterpiece is a defiant repudiation of Miss Eyre's high-minded moralising and, by implication, of the stuffiness that envelops English society. Her spirited Creole heiress, Antoinette Cosway, grubs around in the fertile soil of her island, revelling in the musky smell of dead orchids, entwining herself in the rapacious tendrils of elephant ferns.

Corruption is rampant, despite her family's ill-fated attempts at imposing Victorian order. Their mixed blood (Welsh, French, and White Creole) put paid to any notions of middle-class respectability. The stain of illegitimacy spreads through the novel, blotting out Antoinette's innocent, bare-foot larks in the mud. As I read of rain falling in sheets and stair-rods, and our heroine running barefoot through the forest, I longed to go there myself.

It took me 10 years to reach this forgotten outpost of the Lesser Antilles. I followed the trail of the Kalinago who, one thousand years previously, had paddled northwards up the Antilles chain, until they disembarked on its ragged strip of black-sand coastline and climbed the steep cone of forest. They christened this new island Wai'tukubuli (Tall is her body). In 1493, Christopher Columbus's travelling companion, Nicolo Syllacio, re-named it, and wrote in his log: "Dominica must be seen to be believed."

Indeed it must, because reading about it only provokes the desire to see it. But, equally unbelievable, for contemporary travellers at least, is the fact that the Kalinago's ancestors, the Caribs, still live on the island, in the aptly named Carib Territory. They live by one of the island's 365 rivers (one for each day of the year) in wooden houses raised on stilts where they dry their timber, cocoa and coffee.

But this is straying too far from Jean Rhys's territory. Coulibri Estate is where the action takes place, amid lime groves and screaming parrots. Antoinette speaks a softly lilting patois with the estate's servants, and grammatically correct French and English with her peers. The estate is isolated, the British-built road in need of repair. She floats around in white muslin dresses - tearing her skirts on bamboo spikes - until she is forced into marriage.

White muslin frocks are hard to come by, but apart from that, nothing much has changed. Even the Rhys's French colonial-style town house is still standing, in Roseau, the island's tiny, gingerbread-pretty capital city. It's called Vena's, and its 14 very basic rooms look on to a noisy little street dotted with bars. Of course, I didn't stay there - the metropolis was not what I was after.

I stayed in the heart of the rainforest in a cottage on an old lime plantation, and, miraculously in tune with my nostalgic needs, the British-built road was badly in need of repair.

Screaming peacocks took the place of parrots (an endangered species, they now whimper in their cages in Roseau's Botanical Gardens).

But I floated amongst lime trees, soiled my hiking gear with sulphur- rich mud whilst crawling along the forest floor, admiring a multitude of lichens and mosses. I even spoke patois, which is untranscribable, but I'll have a go: "Mon nom sa Lily; me sah parler patois." Beetlejuice taught me that; he was my guide through the two Trafalgar Waterfalls, Mama and Papa. Pools gather in the hillside where the falls cascade. Papa's are hot, Mama's cool. I bathed in their luxuriously churning waters.

Dominica's lush vegetation did not disappoint; the Dominicans' lazy dissipation was welcome; ganja is smoked widely by gentle, grizzled Rastas; rum is consumed with gay abandon.

I felt so at home on this fetid isle of delicious corruption, and so in tune with the wild spirit that inhabits Jean Rhys's work. I long to go back and lose myself in the orchids, the swamps and forest, but I shall have to content myself with devouring, for the umpteenth time, Wide Sargasso Sea.

`Wide Sargasso Sea' by Jean Rhys is published by Penguin at pounds 4.99

Lilian Pizzichini

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