The sky was red and all my life was in it.

Dear Jean, In your novel Wide Sargasso Sea (1966), you seem to be holding up a distorting mirror to Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre (1847): if we look at this mirror for too long, illusion and reality will gradually lose their once sharp outlines; madness will be less a departure than a never-ending journey back home,…

She was still her own indomitable self,

Dear Willa, A Lost Lady (1923) is a story drenched in melancholy. A short-lived world is coming of age and, caught in its remaking, its inhabitants seem to be constantly circumscribing a void and falling through to the other side. They are not so much losing themselves in its changing, as they are disclosing to…

She has done for me at last, Rachel my torment

Dear Daphne, In My Cousin Rachel (1951), you build up tension, chapter after chapter, by unravelling the personality of the eponymous character in all its complexity and ambiguity: as if it were a game of hide-and-seek, where we follow a clue, only to have it undermined a few steps ahead; much like a dog, running…

Strange can be quite normal

Dear Samanta, Your novel Fever Dream (2017), translated from the Spanish by Megan McDowell (Distanca de Rescate, 2014) takes the form of a conversation between a woman and a boy, going back and forth between past and present, in a fragmented series of flashbacks. It also reads like a confession of guilt, and a nightmare….

I’ll describe my insanity through a sudden insight

Dear Christine, Do you know that feeling we have when we know where a book was going, and we know it could have worked – but it simply didn’t? I feel that about your novel Incest (2017) translated by Tess Lewis (L’Incest, 1999). Trying to be experimental while never giving up control over what the experiment…

Oh we can afford very well to laugh at their ideas

Dear Jane, Ok, I confess: I’ve violated your correspondence, and I did it more than once. In my defence, though, I have to say that your letters read almost as if they were begging me to open them. Read me, you seem to be writing. I am here, too. Jane Carlyle: Newly Selected Letters (2004),…

To show our scorn of pretending life’s a safe business

Dear Sylvia, Lolly Willowes (1926) is a satirical comedy of manners centred on an unmarried woman who suddenly decides to escape the claustrophobic domestic role her family tries to force on her. Funnily enough, the means she will use to fight against her family are no less morally equivocal than the life they were trying to…

Virtue can sometimes be a little depressing

Dear Barbara, Excellent Women (1952) is a comedy of manners about a spinster surrounded by people who cannot see why she shouldn’t suffer for being single. She is perfectly fine, though – if anything, the married people in the book are the ones really struggling, or in pain. The narrator, Mildred Lathbury, is an unmarried…

Breaking through memories into desire

Dear Chris, In After Kathy Acker (2017), you are after a woman who was a professed self-mythologizer. Acker liked to play hide-and-seek, and buried herself in a room full of distorting mirrors. All you dispose of to find this woman is a collage of contradictory testimonials, and her own words. You can try to uncover…

Hope is a wound

Dear Marianne, The Weight of Things (2015), translated by Adrian Nathan West (Die Schwerkraft der Verhältnisse, 1978) is this odd thing: something in-between a horror story, a domestic satire and an allegory of the insanity of war – a tale where the only character who does not lack in accountability and personal responsability is the…

A woman with a mission

Dear Margaret, In your novel Miss Marjoribanks (1866), your protagonist seems to have set herself the difficult task of trying to overcome the confines of Victorian views on women. However, at the same time, she does so by remaining dutifully bound to these very narrow confines. Much like your protagonist, you seem to write from…

Don’t ever wait for the swallows,

Dear Larissa, Your short story collection Swallow Summer, translated by Lyn Marven (2016. Originally, Schwalbensommer, 2003) made me think of tracks made of air: we might know they have just been travelled by birds, but we cannot trace back the moment immediately before their departure, or the very first movement of their wings. Your stories felt…