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Review: The Orchid House, by Phyllis Shand Allfrey

Pages: 246

Original date of publication: 1953

My edition: 1991 (Virago)

Why I decided to read: Heard about this while browsing the list of Virago Modern Classics

How I acquired my copy: Ebay seller, July 2010

The Orchid House is the story of three young white women growing up in Dominica, in a house called L’Aromatique, or the Orchid House for its conservatory. The point of view is from their nurse, Lally, who took care of them when they were growing up. Stella, married to a German but living in America, is now a mother; Joan, also a mother, is a political activist; and Natalie is a wealthy widow. The girls have grown up and moved away, but one by one each returns. It’s a novel in which women are the focal point of the story; each of the male main characters is weak, both physically and/or emotionally.

This is a weird one, both in tone and story. As far as plot goes, there’s not much of one; it’s mostly just a flurry of activity as one sister leaves and another one comes. The narrator, Lally, isn’t believable; she’s far more educated than I imagine someone in her position might be, and she has less of a presence in the novel than some of the male characters. She claims that she loves the three girls, but you don’t really get a feel for that in this book. Of the three sisters, Joan and Stella are the more interesting, since their role in the story is much larger than Natalie’s. As far as the tone goes, though, it’s atmospheric and brooding, which I enjoyed; I’ve never been to the West Indies, but I can imagine it very clearly through this book. You get this feeling of being suspended midair while reading this novel, much as the humidity of a summer afternoon hangs in the air. There’s almost a repressive feeling to the tone of this novel sometimes, which works for it in a way.

Nonetheless, this book is important in terms of its place in West Indian literature; apparently, Jean Rhys was influenced by this book in the writing of Wide Sargasso Sea. Unfortunately, I just didn’t care much for The Orchid House.


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