There are some books which you finish and feel a mixture of utter joy that you read something so wonderful, swiftly followed by that lurch in your chest when you realise that these books come few and far between and that you won’t have this exact experience ever again, even if you were to re-read the book from the start… something which you invariably want to do in these situations. This was the exact set of feelings that I had after I had read the very last line, and oh what a closer it was too (no spoilers coming though I promise), of ‘My Cousin Rachel’ by Daphne Du Maurier.
Philip Ashley is the narrator of ‘My Cousin Rachel’ he is a rather naïve young man who has grown up under the care of his elder cousin Ambrose, who owns a large estate, and has become like a mixture of father, brother and best friend. He is also being lined up as Ambrose’s heir and replacement as manager of the estate which often means when Ambrose has to go away to avoid the winters Philip is left in charge. On one such trip to Italy Ambrose writes to Philip that he has met ‘our cousin Rachel’ a woman who slowly looms larger in letters before Ambrose announces they have married, only soon after Ambrose suddenly dies after sending Philip some much more ominous correspondence and soon Rachel herself descends upon Philip’s life.
The story so far does sound a relatively simple one; however I have only really given you the gist of the very first parts of the book. As it goes on, and what sets it apart, the psychological intensity Du Maurier weaves through the pages along with the constant sense that she could pull the rug from under you at any given moment is incredible. Before Rachel even appears herself, around 80 pages in, she is quite the presence and the reader has quite possibly made up their mind about her through Philip’s utter jealously and then suspicion of this woman. Daphne then brings in a character quite unlike the one we would imagine. It is this game of Rachel being a misunderstood sweet if tragic innocent or magnificently manipulative calculating monster that makes you turn the page, are you right about her or utterly wrong?
“Since my journey to the villa she had become a monster, larger than life itself. Her eyes were as black as sloes, her features aquiline like Rainaldi’s, and she moved about those musty villa rooms sinuous and silent, like a snake.”
As with all of Daphne’s novels this is also a book about the human psyche generally, again this is often the case, the much darker sides of it. Jealousy is at the heart of this novel (I occasionally wondered about the nature of obsession too in terms of Philip and his attachment to Ambrose, or was there something other that dared not speak its name?), Philip makes all his initial opinions on Rachel on nothing more than that one pure emotion, after Ambrose’s death comes grief and anger and here too Rachel becomes the focal point for this. We also have to ask ourselves if Philip is an incredibly perceptive young man despite his almost closeted childhood, or is he possibly just as unreliable and possibly as innocently beguiling as Rachel herself? Something on every page makes you question yourself, it is quite incredible.
The atmosphere of the book is also utterly brilliant. In fact ‘My Cousin Rachel’ rather reminded me of the sensation stories of the late 1800’s, which I think is when this novel is meant to be set though we never officially know the time period. From the very opening sentence ‘They used to hang men at Four Turnings in the old days.’ we know we are in for a dark and brooding tale, and Du Maurier certainly doesn’t disappoint.
Many people claim this is like a sister novel to Du Maurier’s most famous work ‘Rebecca’ and I think to say that does do ‘My Cousin Rachel’ an injustice. Yes there is the gothic feel and uneasy atmosphere of both novels, they both feature large estates, we also have a mystery at the heart of each tale and a woman who takes over every page even though she may not be in the book that often. I grant the fact they do both also look at dark human traits but in very, very different ways and though ‘Rebecca’ will always be my favourite Du Maurier novel I am not sure that ‘My Cousin Rachel’ could be beaten for it’s sense of never knowing the truth, in fact I would say Daphne leaves much more to the reader in this novel than she did in ‘Rebecca’ and I loved that.
I had always been told to leave ‘My Cousin Rachel’ as one of the last of Daphne Du Maurier’s novels because it was one of the best. I would heartily recommend people read this as their first Du Maurier novel because once you have read it I can almost guarantee you will want to go off and discover more of her works, I really envy you joy you have ahead of you if you haven’t read this novel before. This will easily be a contender for my book of the year almost exactly fifty years after it was originally published.
I should actually thank Ruth (and I think Jeanette) for making me read ‘My Cousin Rachel’ much sooner than I had ever intended, this was going to be one of those ‘save it for a rainy day’ reads that would languish on my TBR forever. I had also not anticipated reading Daphne so soon after ‘Discovering Daphne’ with Polly. I am thrilled I read it and it’s another reminder that I need to stop putting off the books I really want to read and just get on and read them as I mentioned a week ago.