The bird flies; the flower dance; but I hear always the sullen thud of the waves; and the chained beast stamps on the beach. It stamps and stamps.’

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A walk on Curracloe beach, shooting location for Brooklyn and Saving Private Ryan, complemented Virginia Woolf’s book perfectly!

There is nothing better than reading a classic. Unfortunately, there seem to be more classic books out there than available time so when I eventually do get to one I savour the experience.

This was my first Virginia Woolf read. By all accounts, this is her most difficult but her most rewarding. I would have to agree with that perception on both accounts. However, this is a book that I can see myself coming back to and one that will offer something different each time. It is worth reading the opening paragraphs alone for the magnificently beautiful description of the ocean at sunrise.

The Waves tells the story of six interconnected characters. From birth up to death, we experience the lives of Bernard, Susan, Rhoda, Neville, Jinny, and Louis. There is a seventh character called Percival but we never get the story from his perspective.

Reading The Waves, reminded me of Eimear McBride’s The Lesser Bohemians. The prose flows as a stream of consciousness and is unrecognisable when compared to the traditional novel. In fact, Woolf herself preferred to call The Waves a ‘playpoem.’ This style of writing isn’t for everyone as it demands a different form of thinking but this is what reading The Waves so special and unlike any other book.

Each character develops a different identity as the novel opens up, but they never quite separate from each others existence. This in a nutshell is the message of Virginia Woolf’s masterpiece. We assault the world with our experience like the waves assault the shore but when our time is over more waves follow. Night and day constantly approach and recede like the waves, as do the seasons and years. Even though we like to think that we are unique, we are only a small part of the whole picture.

But we – against the brick, against the branches, we six, out of how many millions millions, for one moment out of what measureless abundance of past time and time to come, burnt there triumphant.’

Out of the six characters, for me Bernard the writer stands out. Bernard ‘who is perpetually making notes in the margin of his mind for some final statement.’ Bernard gets the final say as the novel closes and death approaches. Maybe, by identifying with Bernard’s character, this says something about me. That is the beauty of The Waves, so much is left open for discussion and contemplation after reading this remarkable book.

Nevertheless, life is pleasant, life is tolerable. Tuesday follows Monday; then comes Wednesday. The mind grows rings; the identity becomes robust; pain is absorbed in growth. Opening and shutting, shutting and opening, with increasing hum and sturdiness, the haste and fever of youth are drawn into service until the whole being seems to expand in and out like the mainspring of a clock. How fast the stream flows from January to December! We are swept on by the torrent of things grown so familiar that they cast no shadow. We float, we float…’

Would I recommend this book to a friend?

This is one for those interested in poetry and lyrical writing that bends all the rules. If you are comfortable not understanding everything that you read and love that particular sense of wonder. This book is for you.

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We exist not only separately but in undifferentiated blobs of matter.’

Afterthoughts

  • In a 2015, a poll conducted by the BBC voted The Waves as the 16th greatest British novel ever written.
  • It is very interesting to read speculation about which real life acquaintances Woolf based her six character on. Read more here.