Review: Jamaica Inn

jamaica-inn_coverJamaica Inn is the most guilty-pleasure-y of the Daphne du Maurier books I’ve read. The romantic and melodramatic elements are over the top; it’s salacious, it’s predictable, and yet it’s so entertaining. That said, I don’t want to knock it too hard for its cliched elements as some of the set pieces were perhaps less tired in 1936. You may see the end coming a mile away, yet you’ll want to keep reading. For a book whose problems could be solved with a cell-phone in five minutes, it has aged astonishingly well.

The Goodreads blurb is fantastic because it not only captures the main drive of the plot, but the tone as well:
Her mother’s dying request takes Mary Yellan on a sad journey across the bleak moorland of Cornwall to reach Jamaica Inn, the home of her Aunt Patience. With the coachman’s warning echoing in her memory, Mary arrives at a dismal place to find Patience a changed woman, cowering from her overbearing husband, Joss Merlyn.
Affected by the Inn’s brooding power, Mary is thwarted in her attention to reform her aunt, and unwillingly drawn into the dark deeds of Joss and his accomplices. And, as she struggles with events beyond her control, Mary is further thrown by her feelings for a man she dare not trust….

When I read a book set in the early 1800s, I want to have a sense of that time. Plenty of modern authors dabble in historical fiction, but the setting often feels like a gimmick or opportunity to showcase period-related trivia. There also tends to be a sheen of romanticism over the whole thing that says, “Oh, to live in a simpler time!” Much of Jamaica Inn’s climax centers on the flow of information between parties situated within about ten miles of each other. The idea that this is a difficult distance to travel has been lost in modern life; it’s a quick spin by car and only onerous by bus or train if there happen to be many stops along the way. And yet, when these short distances were thrown around during the climax, I felt genuine stress. “Four miles??!” I thought. “But there’s not enough time!”

The smugglers are vicious, so no added romanticism there—they’re not cool, swashbuckling pirates. As to the cliched tropes (which are very fluffy): There’s a “bad boy” type whom Mary despises at the novel’s outset. How do you think she feels about him by the end? ‘Nuff said. Mary is the most lively character in the book and is therefore charged with bringing a little life to the cardboard cutouts around her. Her uncle, Joss Merlyn, is almost impossibly fiendish; whatever vice can be attributed to him is. He’s a murderer, looter, smuggler, abuser, and alcoholic. He’s well-written in the sense that he maintains an air of unpredictability courtesy of his sudden rages, but this isn’t enough to make him feel like a person.

He lowered his voice; bending down to her ear and seizing her wrist, he doubled it behind her back, until she cried out in pain.
“All right,” he said; “that’s like a foretaste of punishment, and you know what to expect. Keep your mouth shut and I’ll treat you like a lamb. It doesn’t do to be curious at Jamaica Inn, and I’ll have you remember that.” He was not laughing now, but stared down at her, frowning, as though he would read her thoughts. “You’re not a fool, like your aunt,” he said slowly; “that’s the curse of it. You’ve got a clever little monkey face, and a ferreting monkey mind, and you’re not easily scared. But I’ll tell you this, Mary Yellan: I’ll break that mind of yours if you let it go astray, and I’ll break your body too. Now go upstairs to bed, and let’s hear no more of you tonight.” (37)

Mary, in contrast, is quite good with a strong sense of self. Her feelings for Jem Merlyn confuse her, if not the reader, and watching her wrestle with these feelings isn’t compelling. Jem is partially nuanced, but only because the reader can tell he’s not as bad as Mary fears. There is one plot turn that is interesting, but I can’t get into it here because of spoilers, so you’ll have to take my word that it adds a nice zing to the ending.

Despite the campiness, it’s a fun read meant to be read during a cold, blustery winter. There’s lots of crying and depictions of the moor, but there’s always that little thread of romance tickling underneath:

His tones were persuasive, and Mary could almost have trusted him. But she could not forget he was Joss Merlyn’s brother, and as such might betray her. She dared not make a confidant of him—not yet, anyway. Time would show whose side he was on. (60)

Time will show, indeed.

Overall: 4.3 Jamaica Inn’s weakness is the cheesiness that both Rebecca and My Cousin Rachel sidestep so neatly. While it’s a good read, it’s less polished. I wonder if this score would be even lower if I weren’t a fan of du Maurier…

Translation: Read it, but know that it requires a little goodwill and indulgence to get through and enjoy.

Review: My Cousin Rachel

my-cousin-rachel_coverI don’t give much thought to the order in which I read books, but I’m starting to realize that the order in which I read an author’s books shapes my opinion of that author and their style. Having read Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca and Jamaica Inn, I couldn’t repress a number of expectations for My Cousin Rachel. The book encouraged my expectations by establishing a tone that is similar to du Maurier’s others. The tension built unbearably as I read and I turned the pages faster and faster, digging for the clue to kindle The Big Reveal, but it never came. I was stunned to turn the last page and realize the story had ended. On some level, Rebecca and Jamaica Inn prepped me for a tied-off ending. Ambiguity is well-used in My Cousin Rachel, but it never occurred to me that the central mystery would remain unsolvable. If it had, I might have read more slowly to better soak up every nuance and red herring.

Philip’s older cousin, Ambrose, whom he loves like a brother/father, leaves for Italy. Philip doesn’t hear from Ambrose for a long while, but is shocked to learn that Ambrose has abandoned his bachelor lifestyle and married Rachel. Ambrose writes about her in glowing terms, but Philip is unsettled. His initial concern is for his place in Ambrose’s life, but his godfather brings up more practical issues: Now that Ambrose has married and will likely have children, Philip is no longer the default heir. He needs to find his own place:

I rode home, sick with uncertainty and sadness. I hardly knew what to do or how to act. Should I make plans, as my godfather had said? Find myself a home? Make preparations for departure? I did not want to live anywhere else or possess another property. Ambrose had brought me up and trained me for this one alone. It was mine. It was his. It belonged to both of us. But now no longer, everything had changed. (24)

Time continues to pass with Ambrose abroad and Philip rattling around the house. His concerns turn to Ambrose’s health. There are hints he is unwell and his letters become shorter and less frequent. Philip receives a letter written in an unsteady hand that he barely recognizes:

I drew out the scrap of paper and held it to the window for light.
The words were scrawled, almost illegible.
“For God’s sake, come to me quickly. She has done for me at last, Rachel my torment. If you delay, it may be too late. Ambrose.”
That was all. There was no date upon the paper, no mark upon the envelope, which was sealed with his own ring. (29)

Philip leaves immediately, but is too late. He tours the house where Ambrose lived with Rachel and struggles to picture Ambrose in such a place. The biggest question mark is Rachel herself: Did she poison Ambrose? Philip builds a version of Rachel in his mind from the snippets he hears of her character. She looms over the narrative long before she is officially presented to Philip and the reader. This is something that du Maurier writes well; consider Rebecca, in which the titular Rebecca steers everyone by the strength of her absence and the impression left on her widower. Rachel’s appearance, as Ambrose’s widow, at his estate is immensely satisfying. Philip envisions her a dozen different ways before their meeting and as much as I suspected Philip’s expectations were inaccurate, I was still quite surprised…

The book moves quickly, though it’s more about character building than racking up plot points. Like Philip, the reader is deeply invested in digging into Rachel’s character. Did she poison Ambrose? There’s a steady push-pull to drag the reader back and forth through Rachel’s possible guilt and her possible innocence. Added to this are the ways in which Philip cannot be taken wholly at his word as narrator; his biases seep through and infect the reader. I love unreliable narrators, but Philip can be trying at times. He’s immature and can go on a bit, even though the story ultimately works well with him at its center. He slowly takes over the estate and steps into Ambrose’s role (following his routines, wearing his clothes) which keeps Ambrose in the story. The bond between the two cousins is convincing; a lesser author might have brushed Ambrose to the side and reduced his death to an on-switch for the plot. Keeping him around creates a strange, unsettling threesome with Rachel and Philip.

I haven’t read Rebecca for a while, but I rank My Cousin Rachel right alongside it. The two books are constructed differently in the end, but both are masterfully written and offer genuine suspense.

Overall: 4.8

Translation: Highly recommended. It reads especially well when tucked in bed on a stormy evening.

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Review: Rebecca

rebeccaDaphne duMaurier’s Rebecca, first published in 1938, has been on my list of favorites since I was given a copy a decade ago. The book’s biggest weakness is the cover: recent printings are teal and pink with flowing script; other editions feature gold lettering over a red silk background (as shown). It often looks as though it belongs among books with Fabio-esque men on the cover, which makes it a hard sell to friends. But it really, really, is not like that.

At the outset, the unnamed narrator is on holiday as companion to the hilariously gauche Mrs. Van Hopper. While there, she meets Maxim de Winter, Rebecca’s widower. After a brief courtship, the narrator becomes the second Mrs. de Winter and returns with Maxim to Manderley. Since Rebecca’s death, the housekeeper has preserved the house as a shrine and Mrs. de Winter finds herself in competition with Rebecca’s ghost. Being introverted and naive, she believes herself a poor replacement of someone so vibrant, beautiful, and intelligent. The first half of the novel is her struggle to carve a place for herself in the house. It’s hard to describe how engaging and suspenseful this book is without giving away the ending, so you’ll have to take my word that this scant summation of plot doesn’t do the novel justice.

Despite being dead at the novel’s start, Rebecca drives the action through the first half of the novel. The second Mrs. de Winter is a negative image more than a character in her own right—she defines herself not by who she is, but by all the ways she is dissimilar to Rebecca.

“She who had sat here before me had not wasted her time, as I was doing. She had reached out for the house telephone and given her orders for the day, swiftly, efficiently, and run her pencil perhaps through an item in the menu that had not pleased her. She had not said, ‘Yes, Mrs. Danvers,’ and ‘Of course, Mrs. Danvers,’ as I had done. And then, when she had finished, she began her letters, five, six, seven perhaps to be answered, all written in that same curious, slanting hand I knew so well.” (88)

Though she is knocked down by dozens of small humiliations, she is not pushed so far as to become unlikable or unrelatable. When I read the book now, it is easier to enjoy the first half because I have the end in mind. For a first-timer, I imagine her spinelessness would be grating. So many of her uncomfortable moments are caused by her projecting her insecurities into the situation:

“[…] it was not until I saw Frith come in and look at me, from behind the Service screen, that I realised it was after ten o’clock. I sprang to my feet at once, feeling guilty, and apologised for sitting there so late, and he bowed, saying nothing, very polite, very correct, but I caught a flicker of surprise in his eyes. I wondered if I had said the wrong thing. Perhaps it did not do to apologise. Perhaps it lowered me in his estimation. I wished I knew what to say, what to do. I wondered if he suspected, as Mrs. Danvers had done, that poise, and grace, and assurance were not qualities inbred in me, but were things to be acquired, painfully perhaps, and slowly, costing me many bitter moments.” (81-82).

He’s probably just surprised that she continues to act like a guest in her own home. Much of the novel’s suspense does not stem from the mystery that gradually unfolds, but from her continued discomfort. Just as she cannot settle into the house, a reader is unable to settle into the story — it’s clear that something is about to happen. I wrote about suspenseful unease in reviewing We Have Always Lived in the Castle, but the pacing is much slower here. If you can have patience through the first half, you will be well rewarded in the second when the characters take on new angles. None of them have much nuance in the beginning: Maxim is sober and direct; Mrs. de Winter is clueless; Mrs. Danvers (the housekeeper) is villainous; Rebecca is an intelligent beauty. The appeal of the novel is that, as it progresses, these characters are transformed. Du Maurier’s pacing is excellent; when everything is revealed, you are able to see how the groundwork for the ending was laid in the opening chapters.

Looking back, I realize this review is so vague as to be almost useless, but this is one of those books that you really can’t know too much about before you start reading. Many apologies, but when you read it, you’ll understand.

Overall: 4.8.

Translation: Read it, and if you’re some kind of manly-man inclined to grouse about the cover, then you’re welcome to cover it with a brown-bag book cover.