Daphne du Maurier + time travel? Yes, please! Despite its flashy premise, The House on the Strand is primarily a slow-burning character study more in line with My Cousin Rachel than Jamaica Inn or Rebecca.
Dick Young’s friend, Magnus, asks his assistance in testing a drug. The drug is explained with a few vague words about memory and sends Dick’s mind to fourteenth-century Cornwall while his body remains in the present. It maps the old world over the new. This form of time travel is laden with pitfalls because he might blunder across a present-day road while walking hundreds of years in the past. Touching any living creature—past or present—vaults him back to the current day.
Each time Dick takes the drug, he observes the same group of people, but a week might pass in his time while months elapse in the past. Though he only sees snatches of their lives, he’s absorbed by their drama. Much of Dick’s internal monologue is spent trying to work out everything that has happened since his last visit, which makes the past events feel very far removed even though Dick is watching them happen. At first I liked the fragility of his connection—the way he has to be careful not to touch anyone while keeping a map in his head to not wander somewhere dangerous—but I soon came to dislike that even their most interesting affairs are made boring when filtered through Dick’s perspective.
While I’m not convinced Dick’s adventures are fun, I’m convinced that Dick thinks they are. In many ways, his time-traveling is less about the people he visits than its effect on him. Because he’s staying alone at Magnus’s house, he focusses all his energy on his next trip. When his wife, Vera, eventually joins him, he’s impatient and unhappy in her presence. Faced with his inattention and sudden habit of disappearing and turning up in wet, muddy clothes, she suspects he’s an addict. That said, I doubt he was a good husband before all this. She has two children by her late husband and when asked to say hi to them on the phone, he thinks: “They were nice kids. But I could have done without them.” (99)
Vera’s assumptions about addiction are more right than she knows and allow her to seem reasonably concerned instead of irrationally controlling. Even so, she primarily exists to nag her husband. As Dick puts it, “‘Oh, for God’s sake, . . . you’re behaving like every well-worn joke about wives I’ve ever heard.'” (138) In her defense, she helps the plot by changing the book’s subject from time travel to addiction. If this book were only about time travel, I’d need the trips to be a lot more interesting. As is, these scenes read like lists of names and titles. I’ve always been bad with names, but it’s doubly hard because the characters are passive and therefore forgettable. It’s not their fault, really; if Dick could interact with them, they’d seem more lively, but that’s not how it works in this book.
All that said, there are moments when I think du Maurier achieves something a little wonderful with her depiction of time travel. When Dick pores through old records and see the names and dates for people he’s observed so recently, he pictures them vivid and alive while being acutely aware they died centuries ago. Seeing him appreciate that the past was three-dimensional, in color, and just as complicated and nuanced as the world today helped me appreciate that fact. Even though these glimmers of a living past are only occasionally moving, Cornwall is beautifully described.
Overall: 4.2 (out of 5.0) The past scenes comprise too much of the book’s length to not weigh down the final score.
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