To The Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf

With this being Women’s History Month, the 2018 ONTD Reading Challenge for March is to read a book written by an ‘influential woman’ and the group suggested visiting The Guardian’s list of “10 Inspiring Female Writers You Need To Read” for inspiration. Number four on that list is Ms. Woolf, and so, having started TTL but lost my copy over a decade ago I decided it was time to revisit it.

How to convey my thoughts on this book? To start with I suppose I will explain my relatively low rating, by saying that I can rarely bring myself to give a book more than 3 stars if I didn’t enjoy reading it. That’s not to say I didn’t appreciate VW’s writing style, in fact I think some of the figurative language in the ‘Time Passes’ section was the most beautiful I have ever read. But…

Ok, let’s start with the positives. The first few chapters I enjoyed immensely. As in life, a lot occurs while nothing much actually happens. The characters, while eccentric (some might say arty-farty) are beautifully portrayed and relatable. From poor young James and sympathetic Mrs. Ramsey, to the unwittingly provocative Mr. Tansy. The writing here is masterful, conveying perfectly the discrepancy between male and female roles of the time and different personalities.

However, after a while I started to feel I was going mad. I recently went to an art show where one the pieces had a constant stream of overlapping voices in the background. The piece was intended to represent the conflicting voices that plague a person with a mental health disorder, and it was amazingly affecting. I was reminded strongly of this throughout TLL, probably in part because I was listening to the audio version. The combination of the descriptive language and the endless sentences are mesmerising to the point where I found myself completely dissociating from reality. I feel sure this was VW’s intention, and applaud the achievement.

I’ve seen reviewers refer to the writing style as a ‘stream of consciousness’. I get that, I can see how the rambling sentences reflected the nature of thoughts as we experience them. Actually I loved that. In particular, Lilly’s vision of the table in the tree, when she is contemplating Mr. Ramsey’s career in philosophy will stay with me as one of the most memorable images I’ve experienced conjured through prose.

Nevertheless, it does become repetitive. A lot of the same musings occur over and over again, with very little added. Once more, I get it! That IS, in reality, the nature our thoughts, and I fully appreciate W’s wit in using this device. That said, for me the book would have been more endurable if, on revisiting the same thoughts, we were given a new perspective or interpretation.

The main issue for me was that it didn’t need to be so long. I know I know, it’s not exactly considered a tome at 200-some pages, but with sentences you could wrap around the world several times over and have words to spare, I would be lying if I said it wasn’t a huge effort to get through. The third section was what let the book down for me. It is largely where the repetitions came in, and the loss of a main character left the narrative unfocused and flaky. I think it would be easier to appreciate the genius (because there is genius) behind the writing if you weren’t made to reach a point at which you feel battered around the head by it.

I absolutely don’t regret reading it, in fact on reflection I am beginning to feel better about the experience. Everyone should try reading this or some other of VWs work (I hear that most of her fiction is of a similar style) because it truly is a work of art. It may be awhile before I feel ready to pick up another, but I won’t be removing Mrs. Dalloway from my tbr list.

Favourite Quote:

Half one’s notions of other people were, after all, grotesque. They served private purposes of one’s own.

Star Rating:

3.5 stars

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