Virginia Woolf’s first novel brims with ensemble characterization. A cast of privileged Brits journeys across the Atlantic to a fictitious coastal settlement in Brazil, where they while away idle time dining, reading, gossiping, flirting, playing games, doing hobbies, making excursions, and indulging in self-reflection. Woolf’s knack for dialogue blended with omniscient introspection shows a master artist’s touch. How she is able to juggle all of these narrative perspectives is a feat, especially as this is her first book. As I was absorbing the characters and setting, I thought, this is what Downton Abbey wishes it could be. Her narrative camera roves among the ensemble, it picks up telling details, assembling a world that is felt as much as it is shown. Characters are revealed as distinct entities, and the way they play off one another in various combinations is fun to watch. A lot more fun than the ham-fisted, soap opera, costume drama antics of the gang from Downton, because Woolf knows the power of language as vehicle for storytelling. It can get inside the minds of characters like no other art form can.

Eventually the plot centers on a pair of characters, Rachel and Terence. They get engaged, she suddenly takes ill, and after an excruciating decline that rattles the entire cast of vacationers, she dies. Plotting has been downplayed here; it gives way to the textured descriptions, tangents on themes like death, gender, and marriage. Death haunts the book like a shadow. The suddenness of Rachel’s demise is actually foreshadowed quite well. Woolf is executing a narrative chiaroscuro, where dark and light, death and life, are in constant opposition. Other binary dances can be seen working through the story to one degree or another. Men and women. Old and young. Those who don’t work for a living and those who do. The “civilized” English and the “native” Brazilians. Humans and nature. The persona (how people present themselves) and the inner life (what they say to themselves when no one is looking).

Woolf manages, even at this early stage in her career, to weave these threads into a compelling, absorbing tale. At times, we become a little too aware of watching the young artist at work, trying out different techniques, running through her narrative exercises, working out the details. In those spots, Woolf runs the risk of letting the form over-determine the content. This is certainly a feature of modernism, and The Voyage Out is a modernist text, though not nearly as experimental as what would issue from Woolf very soon. She stretches the conventions here, and to a degree she may be constrained by them. What wins the day in the end is Woolf’s masterful prose. Her touch is impeccable. Those beautiful sentences are a joy to read. By comparison her contemporaries Henry James and Joseph Conrad seem a clotted mess. There’s a lighter touch here, a cleaner prose line, capable of insightful introspection and nuanced external description. Here is one of the handful of great English prose stylists in her auspicious beginning. It’s like watching a hall of fame athlete in her rookie season. She takes the stage, announces her presence: here I am, look what I can do. Watch and learn.

I read the Barnes and Noble classics edition on the Nook e-reader, which includes an introduction, helpful notes and supplements. It was evidently pieced together with some care and would serve well equally at home and the classroom.

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