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Review: Herself Surprised, by Joyce Cary


Pages: 250
Original date of publication: 1941
My edition: 1999 (NYRB Classics)
Why I decided to read:
How I acquired my copy: Joseph Fox bookstore, Philadelphia, January 2012

Herself Surprised is the story of Sara Monday, who narrates her story from girlhood onwards. The novel opens in a courtroom, where a middle-aged Sara is on trial for a crime of which we’re not given the details, so I thought it was interesting to see how Sara gets to the place she’s in. As a young woman, she works as cook, where she attracts the attention of Mr. Monday, who marries her; many years later, Sara develops a relationship with an unreliable bounder and artist named Gulley Jimson, who continues to plague her life despite not being all that good for her.

On the back of the book, Sara is frequently compared to Moll Flanders, another kind of fallen woman. There are certainly a lot of similarities between the two stories for it to be coincidental: the servant who marries the master of the house; the good-for-nothing husband; etc. As with Moll Flanders, your enjoyment of the book hinges on whether or not you’ll like the main character; although you’re not given a reason for why Sara descends to the level she did or why she makes the choices she makes in the novel, you do like her. She’s relatively smart for a woman of her class, although she’s a little too nonchalant about her relationship with Gulley. I wanted Sara to rage back against him, to give him the same kind of treatment he gave her. Despite my misgivings about Sara’s spectacularly bad choices when it came to relationships, I thought she had a unique voice and I enjoyed reading her narration of her story. Sara is certainly full of life

The novel is relatively short, as are the chapters, each one being no more than a few pages. While an interesting way to device the book, I thought it was a little bit distracting to the overall flow of the book. But other than that, I enjoyed reading Sara’s story.


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