Book review: After Leaving Mr Mackenzie

Jean RhysA slim novel, After Leaving Mr Mackenzie is the second novel by Jean Rhys, published in 1931. Semi-autobiographical, it tells the story of a young woman [if a woman in her mid-thirties can be called young] who faces up to the realities of life after a love affair ends. The title is not strictly true because Julia did not leave Mr Mackenzie, he left her.

She moves to a cheap hotel room where the furnishings are faded and the only decoration is a poor painting which she assumes must have been left in lieu of debt by a previous tenant. Where Rhys excels is her description of the small details, drawing a picture of Julia’s surroundings and her moods. ‘She found pleasure in memories, as an old woman might have done. Her mind was a confusion of memory and imagination. It was always places that she thought of, not people. She would like thinking of the dark shadows of houses in a street white with sunshine; or of trees with slender black branches and young green leaves, like the trees of a London square in spring; or of a dark-purple sea, the sea of a chromo or of some tropical country that she had never seen.’ Like the title of the novel, it is not always clear what is true and what is imagination.

After the death of her baby and the breakdown of her marriage, which is not really explained, Julia survives in Paris thanks to the men she dates. They give her cash, buy her clothes, pay for her lodging; in this, Julia is similar to Marya in Rhys’ first novel Quartet. This novel takes a step further in that when her maintenance payments stop, Julia takes action to help her situation. After unsuccessfully asking Mr Mackenzie for cash, she is helped by a stranger, Mr Horsfield. Julia buys new clothes and a train ticket to London where she visits her sister who cares for their dying mother.

This is a study of one woman’s desperate situation and her dependency on others. Julia is a sad woman with a past, shabby, as if wearing a sign around her neck saying ‘trouble’. The delight in reading this book is how Rhys tells Julia’s story, as much as the story itself.

Read my review of Quartet.

If you like ‘After Leaving Mr Mackenzie’, try these other novels about love affairs:-
‘The End of the Affair’ by Graham Greene
‘The Cheesemaker’s House’ by Jane Cable
‘The Language of Flowers’ by Vanessa Diffenbaugh

‘After Leaving Mr Mackenzie’ by Jean Rhys [UK: Penguin Modern Classics] Buy at Amazon

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