I know I’ve written about books having a ‘right’ moment, i.e. that particular point where they’re almost destined to be read, or where it’s just the right time for them and this is one of them for me. I bought the book last year with a book token two sibling students had bought for me on leaving teaching and had forgotten about it until our trip to Cornwall crept up on me (how quickly a year goes, in both cases!) Determined to understand something of the place we would be visiting, and a place so loved by Du Maurier, I decided to read this and Jamaica Inn (which will be reviewed soon.)
Having started this book before we left, Du Maurier’s descriptions of gardens in this and Rebecca suddenly made sense- as you drive closer to Cornwall, you start to see rhododendrons EVERYWHERE, as they seem to be in her writing also. I felt that she had prepared me for the county in advance.
The novel is an interesting one, a kind of cat-and-mouse game played between Phillip Ashley and his cousin Rachel, who happens to have married Phillip’s other cousin (and guardian from very babyhood) Ambrose when she met him in Italy. All appears to be well, until Phillip starts to receive strange letters from his godfather, stating that his wife is in the process of killing him. Phillip, the sole heir to Ambrose’s Cornish estate and devoted to his guardian, is devastated and immediately suspicious of Rachel after Ambrose’s death abroad. The novel chiefly concerns the relationship between Phillip and Rachel once the latter arrives on the estate. The novel itself is a taut, suspicious novel that never quite lets the reader relax into its pages. This is not a ‘warm bath and relax’ kind of a novel; this is a book that will keep you reading into the wee hours, not trusting your judgement of anyone involved. And Du Maurier likes it that way.
Even the ending is enough to cause gnashing of teeth in disbelief and that’s probably why I loved it so much. I was never comfortable, but I was fine with that and happy to have been trusted with a mind game so intricate that I’m still thinking about it two weeks after I finished it. So many modern novels tie things up neatly for us, but I quite like the uneasy sense of disquiet caused by never trusting the motives of the characters in the story, particularly Rachel- is she is massive con-artist? A black widow? Or is Phillip imprinting the weird view of women he’s inherited from his godfather onto the women he meets? (He is haughty and strangely dismissive of women, something he has learnt from a lifetime of a male only household.) Are we meant to feel sorry for Phillip, or despise him?
The quote on the book cover is ‘a masterpiece of tension’ and, even though the word ‘masterpiece is generally hugely overused, in this case I really think you genuinely can judge the book by its cover.