Reading this book is like eating a very rich dessert. One spoonful goes a long way. Every page is dense with imagery and ideas. It’s a masterpiece in under 200 pages.
Not the most challenging Virginia Woolf novel I’ve read (that honour goes to Between the Acts or To the Lighthouse) but it still wasn’t an easy read, due to the writing style. It’s very unusual, experimental even. Observations are spoken by six characters, describing their actions and emotions from early age to old age. These chapters are interspersed with a description of the sun rising and setting over the waves, symbolising the passing of a human life in the span of a single day (or at least that’s my interpretation – I’ve deliberately avoided reading other opinions on the book).
Here are some random examples of Woolf’s writing:
‘Let us now crawl,’ said Bernard, ‘under the canopy of the currant leaves, and tell stories. Let us inhabit the underworld. Let us take possession of our secret territory, which is lit by pendant currants like candelabra, shining red on one side, black on the other. Here, Jinny, if we curl up close, we can sit under the canopy of the currant leaves and watch the censers swing. This is our universe.’ (p.12)
‘I have signed my name,’ said Louis, ‘already twenty times. I, and again I, and again I. Clear, firm, unequivocal, there it sounds, my name. Clear-cut and unequivocal am I too. Yet a vast inheritance of experience is packed in me. I have lived thousands of years. I am like a worm that has eaten its way through the wood of a very old oak beam. But now I am compact; now I am gathered together this fine morning.’ (p.98)
‘The iron gates have rolled back,’ said Jinny. ‘Time’s fangs have ceased their devouring. We have triumphed over the abysses of space, with rouge, with powder, with flimsy pocket-handkerchiefs.’ (p.136)
Maybe you can see why I could only read one chapter a day. So much imagery was overwhelming my mind. I think one of Woolf’s best skills is finding original ways to describe life. Everything she says is striking and thought-provoking. It’s like reading her own thoughts divided into the mouths of the six friends.
The novel was first published in 1931. My edition is by Oxford World’s Classics, 2015, edited by David Bradshaw.