Book Review

Good Morning, Midnight by Jean Rhys

excellent mid-life crisis novel

This is a beauitful, stunning, novel.

It’s an artful and emotive exploration of regret, it’s about a woman of around 40 (Sasha Jensen) returning, briefly, to Paris, the city where she spent the most important years of her youth.

Sasha reflects on the mistakes she made when young and tries to avoid making the same mistakes again, but is unable to do so.

This is what it is like to age, this is what it is like to approach middle age with nothing solid and sturdy beneath oneself.

The way Rhys writes about her protagonist’s wandering and drinking and chatting to strangers is the way that I feel on the rare occasions when I go outside.

Being amongst strangers feels like something that morose, older, unhappy, people shouldn’t do, and responding to that by trying to “fun” your way out of despondency feels both transgressive and stereotypical.

Rhys writes about what it is like to revisit the places of your greatest embarrassments, your greatest shames, particularly when those places are also where you had your happiest moments, your biggest adventures, your best times.

Good Morning, Midnight is a mature and important exploration of this hipsterish life that is now so normal for my fellow millennials and I – we never quite know how to change, how to “adapt” into “adulthood”.

For those of us who traditional markers of maturity are impossible, for whatever reason, we must struggle to reckon our societal “failings” with our awareness that what we did was right for us. For me, for you, not for propriety.

Does it matter if a person is financially and psychologically stable, if they’re married with children, when they never tried to do the things they wanted with their life?

It is easier to fall in and collapse into the dead-behind-the-eyes life of the normies, to forgo the artistic and the expressive urge, to seek reliability over romance, to seek continuity over adventure, to want recognisable, predictable experiences rather than changing, moving, fun. To feel stable, rather than to feel.

It is a bleak portrait, I suppose, but so too are all the other writing like this from the same period (the 1940s): how can one live a perfect life? How can one be “creative” but still function in a capitalistic society? How can one follow ones dreams if you’re not fucking minted by inheritance and also have a family to support? You can’t, can you?

We always have to compromise, we have to work jobs to pay the rent and that work leaves us too tired and drained to write, to create, and then instead of creating we try to avoid the despondency of failure through drinking, dancing, fucking, through simple pleasures and easy entertainments.

I have cooked more beautiful food in the past few weeks while working too much, than I did when not working too much the month previously. This is not a good thing: eating is pleasure, cooking is pleasure, it is base and unproductive: I do not advance myself when I spend two hours making a stew and bibbing delicious wine, if anything I take myself backward and backward and backward.

For every day I spend not writing a poem, the likelihood of me writing a poem the day after decreases, so my lack of creativity goes from days into weeks and all I’ve done, creatively, is the dull screaming that TriumphoftheNow.com always reverts to from time to time.

“Self-expression is self-indulgence” is a phrase I have used in the poetry manuscript I’m working on at the moment, because it embodies an attitude I’ve found in other people, especially in all the moments when I’ve chosen the need to express, to speak openly, over more simplistic and less disruptive routes through life.

I can imagine myself, like Sasha Jensen, returning to London (the Paris of my misspent young adulthood) in a decade to nostalgically retread around the places where I had my greatest triumphs and my greatest failures. The places I spent time disgracing myself and the places where I made friends and read my poetry and people listened. I could and I will walk around streets where I used to live and I will look at buildings where I slept and buildings where I worked and I will think about the happy memories, perhaps, but like Sasha I will be drawn towards the sad ones, particularly if I’m still as sad at 40 as I am in my early thirties.

Good Morning, Midnight felt just achingly familiar, but familiar of a future I will one day have. Sasha doesn’t run into old lovers and old friends, but she does recognise bartenders and waiters and staff in shops who used to serve her when she was younger, more glamorous, more beautiful, more free. She meets people who are like the people she used to know and she finds a young man who flirtatiously attaches himself to her as she, at his age, would have done with an older member of the opposite sex who she’d believed could give her a fun night on the town.

Good Morning, Midnight is about the fallacy of escape, about the inevitability of ageing and our shame at growing old, at wanting the feelings of release and success and freedom that we find the first time we live in a big city and the first times we get drunk in bars, the first times we feel wild sexual chemistry, the first times we eat delicious food and we sing and we dance and we feel like the future will last forever and it’ll all be like that first time, that first week, that first year.

But cities are lovers who don’t love you: they tire you, and they tire of you. Returning to the places of your highest highs doesn’t bring them back, it instead evidences the distance, the disparity between then and now. The only way to move on is to abjure nostalgia, to not be tempted into its saccharine claws, because a misery tour of the scenes of the places where you lost yourself will not making finding yourself, even from a chronological distance, any easier.

Good Morning, Midnight is beautiful, deeply moving, novel, and one I imagine I’ll empathise with even more when I’m deep in a mid-life crisis and find myself drugged up in a grimy East London warehouse losing the buzz every time I catch my agéd reflection in a mirror.

I remember, once, spending an hour writing erotic poetry with a biro on the walls of a toilet in someone’s warehouse flat. That’s a moment I can feel nostalgia for. There’s not much else I want to remember.


Download my weird live album via Bandcamp.

Order my raucous poetry collection via Open Pen.

Order my sad prose chapbook via Selcouth Station Press.


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