Monday, 12 October 2015

Review: My Cousin Rachel by Daphne du Maurier

1951 • 335 pages • Virago

This is my fourth du Maurier novel, and whilst not my favourite, My Cousin Rachel upholds the trademark gloomy atmosphere so familiar with her novels. The story follows Philip Ashley, a young bachelor who is heir to his cousin Ambrose's estate in Cornwall. Ambrose travels to Italy one winter to nurse his health and whilst staying in Florence meets Rachel, a widowed Countess, whom he marries. So far so good, right? Meanwhile, Philip is back in Blighty while all this is happening and learns everything through Ambrose's letters, which as time goes on become increasingly less frequent. Why? It turns out Ambrose is dying of the same ailment which killed his father, and after his death Rachel comes to Cornwall to pay her respects to dead husband's heir.

Now, already there's a sense of something going on here and Philip totally picks up on this vibe, instantly disliking Rachel before he has even met her. But as it turns out, Philip is putty in Rachel's little hands (she actually has really small hands and Philip has this strange fetish towards them which is kind of weird), and his dislike of her grows in to fascination, and ultimately, obsession. The first half, even the first two-thirds of the novel is pretty slow, admittedly. Not very much seems to happen and I think this is done purposely to throw emphasis on the psychological and emotional development of the characters. Kudos to du Maurier because this novel is all about the suspense, yet unlike Rebecca or Jamaica Inn, My Cousin Rachel for me lacked that ultimate 'shocker' moment.

The question behind Rachel's motives is left out in the open. The suspense never explodes despite the build-up. If anything, it gradually diffuses up until the final scene, leaving The Big Question deliberately ambiguous. Maybe it's needy of me to say I wanted to know, absolutely, the truth behind Rachel's character but in this case, I did. There was just too much doubt and uncertainty for me to make my mind up on my own.

The whole story felt like it had an oppressive weight looming over it much to the point where it was like I was reading a black and white film noir. I don't see this as a bad thing; I actually think it does justice to the power of du Maurier's writing. Yet there were times, more often than not, where I found Philip to be both annoying and downright stupid. He is constantly compared to behaving like a child, even in his own first-person narration. I can see where his frustration vents from his own confusion and emotional turmoil, but he's so blindly love sick that it made me want to smack him upside the head.

As for Rachel, even now I'm not sure what to make of her. Did I like her? She's got too much hiding beneath the surface for me to definitely say. I didn't completely dislike her, but there's a complexity about her which made me what to scream for Philip to run like the wind. That being said, her mysterious presence is very du Maurier-esque and for any fellow fans of du Maurier then you should give this a go. Sadly, I was left kicking myself that I didn't like this more.

Overall rating: 3 stars


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