Julie Christine's Reviews > The Waves

The Waves by Virginia Woolf
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it was amazing
bookshelves: best-of-2015, classic, british-isles-theme-setting, read-2015

For three weeks I have looked at this book on my desk, trying to summon the necessary courage to write up my thoughts. Courage, because whatever I say will be an inadequate, tepid articulation of how The Waves made me feel.
'I was running,' said Jinny, 'after breakfast. I saw leaves moving in a hole in the hedge. I thought "That is a bird on its nest." I parted them and looked; but there was no bird on a nest. The leaves went on moving. I was frightened. I ran past Susan, past Rhoda, and Neville and Bernard in the tool-house talking. I cried as I ran, faster and faster. What moved the leaves? What moves my heart, my legs? And I dashed in here, seeing you green as a bush, like a branch, very still, Louis, with your eyes fixed. "Is he dead?" I thought, and kissed you, with my heart jumping under my pink frock like the leaves, which go on moving, though there is nothing to move them. Now I smell geraniums; I smell earth mould. I dance. I ripple. I am thrown over you like a net of light. I lie quivering flung over you.'

The Waves made me quiver. It made my heart jump under my frock like the leaves. I don’t know when I have read such a thing of beauty, a work that soars in joy and plummets elegiacally, rising and falling, ever in motion, and yet caught in stillness. A listening.

Woolf writes the silence between the words, the spaces that we rush to fill with chatter and speeches. She writes the heartbeats we take for granted.
Look, when I move my head I ripple all down my narrow body; even my thin legs ripple like a stalk in the wind. … I leap like one of those flames that run between the cracks of the earth; I move, I dance; I never cease to move and to dance. I move like the leaf that moved in the hedge as a child and frightened me. I dance over these streaked, these impersonal, distempered walls with their yellow skirting as firelight dances over teapots. I catch fire even from women's cold eyes. When I read, a purple rim runs round the black edge of the textbook. Yet I cannot follow any word through its changes. I cannot follow any thought from present to past. I do not stand lost, like Susan, with tears in my eyes remembering home; or lie, like Rhoda, crumpled among the ferns, staining my pink cotton green, while I dream of plants that flower under the sea, and rocks through which the fish swim slowly. I do not dream.

The Waves transcends literary convention. It is beyond poetry, it defies prose. It loops in and around itself, carrying the characters through their linear lives—youth, the obligations of adulthood, the melancholy of aging—within the circular swell of internal thought.

What is this book? What words can describe the effect the moon has on the tides, the tilt of the hemisphere has on the seasons? A colloquy of six characters. Streams of consciousness flowing into a sea that encompasses the whole of life. A tragedy like all of life is a tragedy. Is it something to love, to admire, to imitate, to despair of?
Like and 'like' and 'like' – but what is the thing that lies beneath the semblance of the thing?'" How do words relate to the world? What is constant in the flux of identity? How do we know ourselves and each other, how do we understand a moment or a life in those terms?

Bernard, the writer, is our anchor. If there is anything conventional to The Waves, it is Bernard who serves as a main character, like a Maypole around which the others twirl, their lives entangling, unraveling, dancing on. It is he who reminds us of the impermanence and unreliability of our personal narrative
But in order to make you understand, to give you my life, I must tell you a story – and there are so many, and so many – stories of childhood, stories of school, love, marriage, death, and so on; and none of them are true. Yet like children we tell each other stories, and to decorate them we make up these ridiculous, flamboyant, beautiful phrases

And what lives these are, these characters representative of Woolf’s England: the ex-patriate, the mother, the ingénue, the depressive, the artist, the scholar, and, in one character mourned for but who is never given a voice, the hero.
Louis, stone-carved, sculpturesque; Neville, scissor-cutting, exact; Susan with eyes like lumps of crystal; Jinny dancing like a flame, febrile, hot, over dry earth; and Rhoda the nymph of the fountain always wet.

As I neared the end of The Waves, I read through a conversation in an online writing group started by a writer who works as a first reader for a literary agent. She is tasked with culling through slush pile manuscripts, making the call whether or not a novel is sent on to the agent for the next round of consideration. She came into our group bemoaning the terrible state of many of these manuscripts and suggested several writing craft guides that she wished the hapless authors of those rejected manuscripts would have consulted as they wrote. Guides that trace character arcs into percentages and tidy packages of outlines and moments. I died a little inside as I witnessed other writers scrambling to write down the books she suggested. Books I have read. I get it. I understand. Convention sells books. But for one moment, I wished the human experience could be released from genres and arcs, released to ride the waves of thought and experience.
How impossible to order them rightly; to detach one separately, or to give the effect of the whole – [...] like music.
Then again, if dancing out-of-bounds became convention, it would lose its fragile, precious power.

I am forever changed from reading The Waves. I am filled with the wonder and possibility of a mind freed from convention and embracing humanity, of what happens when we allow in silence and at last hear the roar of our own hearts.
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Reading Progress

December 7, 2014 – Shelved
December 7, 2014 – Shelved as: to-read
March 29, 2015 – Started Reading
March 29, 2015 –
page 29
9.76% ""Water pours down the runnel of my spine. Bright arrows of sensation shoot on either side. I am covered with warm flesh. My dry crannies are wetted; my cold body is warmed; it is sluiced and gleaming. Water descends and sheets me like an eel.""
March 30, 2015 –
page 55
18.52% ""I move, I dance; I never cease to move and to dance. I move like the leaf that moved in the hedge as a child and frightened me. I dance over these streaked, these impersonal, distempered walls with their yellow skirting as firelight dances over teapots. I catch fire even from women's cold eyes."\n \n I think Susan is my girl. I love Susan."
March 31, 2015 –
page 107
36.03% "Like a ribbon of weed I am flung far every time the door opens. The wave breaks. I am the foam that sweeps and fills the uttermost rims of te rocks with whiteness; I am also a girl, here in this room."
April 1, 2015 –
page 165
55.56% "Let us hold it for one moment, love, hatred, by whatever name we call it, the globe whose walls are made of Percival, of youth and beauty, and something so deep sunk within us that we shall perhaps never make this moment out of one man again."
April 2, 2015 –
page 200
67.34% ""But if one day you do not come after breakfast, if one day I see you in some looking glass perhaps looking after another, if the telephone buzzes and buzzes in your empty room, I shall then, after unspeakable anguish, I shall then—for there is no end to the folly of the human heart—seek another, find another, you. Meanwhile, let us abolish the ticking of time's clock with one blow. Come closer.""
April 3, 2015 –
page 200
67.34% "“Heaven be praised for solitude! I am alone now. That almost unknown person has gone, to catch some train, to take some cab, to go to some place or person whom I do not know. The face looking at me has gone. The pressure is removed. Here are empty coffee-cups. Here are chairs turned but nobody sits on them. Here are empty tables and nobody any more coming to dine at them to-night.""
April 3, 2015 – Shelved as: best-of-2015
April 3, 2015 – Shelved as: classic
April 3, 2015 – Shelved as: british-isles-theme-setting
April 3, 2015 – Shelved as: read-2015
April 3, 2015 – Finished Reading

Comments Showing 1-15 of 15 (15 new)

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message 1: by Joyce (new) - added it

Joyce Wow Julie, I don't even know what to say or comment after a review like that. But I know this is one to be read for sure. Thank you for your words.


message 2: by [deleted user] (new)

I've wanted to read The Waves for a while now. Now I really want to read it!


Haifa Beautiful


message 4: by Zoeytron (new)

Zoeytron I am in complete agreement with Joyce. 'Thank you for your words.' Beautifully written review.


Julie Christine Joyce wrote: "Wow Julie, I don't even know what to say or comment after a review like that. But I know this is one to be read for sure. Thank you for your words."

Thank you, Joyce. It took me a few days to write this- I kept getting lost reading through the pages I'd marked with passages that moved me-such a stunning read.


Julie Christine Benjamin wrote: "I've wanted to read The Waves for a while now. Now I really want to read it!"
I hope you love this, Benjamin!


Julie Christine Zoeytron wrote: "I am in complete agreement with Joyce. 'Thank you for your words.' Beautifully written review."
Thank you so much!


message 8: by Diane (new) - added it

Diane Julie, lovely review. I had a similarly difficult time writing about To the Lighthouse, and some other beautiful novels. I think it is harder to write reviews of great books than it is of anything else, because we desperately want our review to convey how great the book was. Or maybe that's just me. :)


message 9: by Glenn (new)

Glenn Sumi Julie: so beautifully put! I love the maypole image. I remember getting 1/3 through The Waves and loving it but having to go on to something else, it was just too demanding and intense, requiring all my concentration. Well some books require - demand - that attention.


Julie Christine Diane wrote: "Julie, lovely review. I had a similarly difficult time writing about To the Lighthouse, and some other beautiful novels. I think it is harder to write reviews of great books than it is of anything ..." Diane, thank you. I so agree- the books we love are often the most challenging to review. Particularly these classics, when so much has already be said.


message 11: by Carol (new)

Carol Julie, your reviews are absolutely beautiful!


Julie Christine Glenn wrote: "Julie: so beautifully put! I love the maypole image. I remember getting 1/3 through The Waves and loving it but having to go on to something else, it was just too demanding and intense, requiring a..."Glenn, so true. I could read this only in the early morning, when the world was silent and I was awake to the words. I hope you find the space and peace to read on.


Julie Christine Carol wrote: "Julie, your reviews are absolutely beautiful!" Carol, thank you!!


Violet wells Fabulous review, Julie.


Julie Christine Violet wrote: "Fabulous review, Julie."
Thank you, Violet.


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