Wednesday, 17 May 2017
#MyCousinRachel #DaphneDuMaurier #Review #BookGroup
Last week on my Daphne Du Maurier Blog Tour I was lucky enough to be joined by Anna Mazzola, Annabel Abbs, Sam Blake, Eloise Books, Cass Green, Julie Owen Moylan and Emily Organ. Each of them contributed fantastic blog posts about their love for Daphne Du Maurier's books and how her novels have influenced their own writing. It was a thrilling tour and I enjoyed every single moment - please search on my blog to catch up with any of the posts you may have missed or check my website bibliomaniacuk.co.uk
So now it's my turn for a bit of Du Maurier book love! My favourite novel is Rebecca. Ever. It's my favourite book ever! Without any doubt. And the black and white film is also a favourite. But today I'm talking about My Cousin Rachel which I have just reread in anticipation of the new film which will be released on June 9th.
My Cousin Rachel is brilliant - but you knew I was going to say that!
It opens with the description of a man hanging from a gibbet - "betwixt heaven and hell" - on Bodmin.
"I can see it now, moving with the wind like a weather-vane on a rusty pivot, a poor scarecrow of what had been a man. The rain had rotted his breeches, if not his body, and strips of worsted drooped from his swollen, limbs like pulpy paper."
We are used to contemporary thrillers opening with a dead body and we are probably more hardened to the shock of the description of the decaying body but there is something very striking and unnerving about this opening paragraph and Du Maurier instills a sense of uneasiness from the outset.
The story continues with Ambrose, Philip's cousin, telling him that this should be a warning to all to live a "sober life" and to "see what a moment of passion can bring on a fellow." Then, a chilling clue as to what we might expect in this dark and brooding tale he adds: "If we killed women for their tongues, all men would be murderers."
Philip Ashley is an orphan who has been raised by his older cousin Ambrose. Ambrose is single and Philip will become his heir. They get on exceptionally well and share a deep bond and a close relationship. Following ill health, Ambrose sets off on a trip to Florence where he falls in love and, suddenly and surprisingly, marries .......and then dies suddenly.
In no time at all, the widow, Rachel, turns up in England. Philip is drawn to this woman in a way he cannot explain and in a way that despite himself, he becomes infatuated with. But, though beautiful and sophisticated there remains something mysterious about her and as events unfold, Philip begins to fear that she might have had a hand in Ambrose's death.
This really is a fantastic psychological thriller. With a male protagonist. The novel is told in first person from Philip's point of view and he is a character we are ready to engage with and relate to. He is clearly young and inexperienced but tries to rise to the challenge of running his cousin's estate and dealing with his grief when Ambrose dies. He has a very small, select group of friends which enables him to remain a little naive, unworldly and at times arrogant. This novel traces his emotional journey as much as the mystery surrounding Ambrose's death.
The atmosphere is heavy, dark, often oppressive and always suspenseful. The moment when we first meet Rachel is so well crafted and executed that it deserves to be read and reread. The details Du Maurier chooses to tell us about her are cleverly revealed; the surroundings as important and suggestive as this woman's physical description.
"Nothing had been moved in the room, no drawers opened in the small secretaire, no clothes flung down; there was none of the litter of arrival."
We have awaited Rachel's arrival with as much anticipation as Philip. We expect to dislike her and be suspicious of her, so her eventual arrival has huge dramatic impact which Du Maurier fully exploits with the slow, tense revelation of this figure clad in black.
"The woman who had pursued me through the nights and days, haunted my waking hours, disturbing my dreams, was now beside me."
Rachel's arrival signifies a change in the household and a change in Philip. Rachel is insightful, intelligent, articulate and calm. There is a conflict between the Ambrose Philip knew and the Ambrose Rachel speaks of which begins to sow some subtle seeds of intrigue and tension but generally the pair get on very well. Rachel also tries to point out more practical aspects of Philip's life like his need to marry and the suitability of Louise as a wife. This introduces perhaps a more mothering or female influence on the household which has so far been governed by single men. However, she also remains a little bit of an enigma and the reader joins Philip in never being fully sure of her true feelings or motives.
"I glanced at her suspiciously to see if she was laughing [at me], but she was looking at her work and I could not see her eyes."
She seems to enjoy teasing Philip, relishing a little that he doesn't always know if she is serious or mischievous, solemn or playful. She seems to learn how to play him quickly and manipulate him easily, provoking emotive reactions and almost goading him. Along with Philip the reader shares that delightfully confusing sense that we never quite know where we stand with Rachel. Du Maurier often refers to Rachel's eyes - they often reveal something contrary to her actions, an ability to see straight through Philip or are hidden from him - whatever, he is never able to interpret them. Superficially she appears generous, honest and a good companion for Philip, softening the atmosphere of the house and dusting it with some feminine charm. But there remains something more elusive about her, something darker lurking in the shadows which is impossible to put your finger on but shows off Du Maurier's exquisite skill at creating such an absorbing, brooding and suspenseful novel.
I was also intrigued by the character of Louise. Although quite a minor character, she is important. Philip tends to disregard her and is too influenced by the fact that they have known each other since childhood, but the reader is not so ready to dismiss her. As we are only told events through Philip's eyes, Louise is helpful in revealing another perspective on events and behaviours, often coming out with a one line comment that irks Philip but hints that something more untoward may be going on .
"How simple it must be for a woman of the world, like Mrs Ashley, to twist a young man like yourself around her finger."
And the flashes of Philip's anger that she provokes - "I could have struck her" - seem over the top but also warn the reader of a temper that could be more that just petulance - perhaps revealing an altogether darker side of his character. The thing that I also liked about Louise was her loyalty and her intelligence. When he eventually realises Louise's worth, Philip relies on her to point out what he has refused to acknowledge; to explain things which had he been less naive or blinkered, could have changed the course of events.
The pace and structure of the novel are faultless and masterful. This is both a slow burner and a page turner. There is a twist that is as jaw dropping as any current best selling thriller - perhaps even more so as the unsettling awakening of Philip is so profound and I'm not sure all our questions are answered by the end. Du Maurier teases us with a certain amount of ambiguity - or perhaps there are several levels on which to enjoy this story.
This is an exceptional read. What impresses me most about Du Maurier's writing is her ability to draw the reader in, create complex characters that intrigue us and take hold of us and her ability to create such intense atmospheres or evocation of place, time and location. Despite her exceptional crafting, her prose is very accessible, fluent, well paced and enjoyable.
When I was reading this novel I had so many strange moments of deja vu. I literally recognised whole sentences and passages from when I read the book before - so much so, I kept thinking someone had moved my bookmark backwards every time I put the book down (which wasn't often, I hasten to add). I must have read this book for the first time about 15 years ago and not looked at it since. That in itself shows how powerful Du Maurier's writing is and how unforgettable her stories are.
Sally Beauman says that in this novel, Du Maurier applies the full battery of skills that made her a bestselling author and the result is dazzling. It is.
I can't wait for the film. I'm hopeful that it will capture the essence of the novel and encourage lots of people to read it or re-read it or to try one of her other novels. I think it would make a great book group outing and I shall be proposing it for mine!!
If you like the sound of this book there here are a few of my other favourite titles which might also appeal to you ......
I have also just bought this which looks fantastic and was recommended by Annabel Abbs in her blog post.
MY COUSIN RACHEL: BIBLIOMANIAC BOOK GROUP QUESTIONS
1. Philip very deliberately referes to Rachel as 'my cousin Rachel' until a certain point. Why does he stop? Why is this effective? What does it symbolise? And why is he so cross when Rachel refers to "his" Louise?
2. How far can the reader trust Philip as a narrator?
3. The book opens with a description of a gibbet. Do you know what this is? Do you think it is an effective start to the novel? Why might Du Maurier have set her novel in an historical setting?
4. If this novel had been written in the last year or so or was reimagined into the modern day, the author may have been tempted to use a dual narrative structure and write from Philips' point of view and then from Rachel's point of view. Do you think this could work? Which other characters in the novel might offer an interesting perspective?
5. Most modern day psychological thrillers are written from a female perspective. How did you relate to Philip? How did you find him as a character? How convincing is Du Maurier as a woman writing from a male perspective?
6. Can you think of any other novels which have a male protagonist but are written by women?
7. How did you respond to Rachel as a character? What did you think of her initially and how did this change? How did you feel towards her at the end of the novel?
8. This novel is about male culpability. Discuss.
9. In her introduction to the 2003 edition of My Cousin Rachel, Sally Beauman suggests that the novel explores male hegemony, the control the men have over Rachel financially and her efforts to resist it. Beauman asks, who is doing the 'real' poisoning and corrupting in this novel? Rachel with her herbal mixtures or the Ashleys with their conditional gifts of jewels, lands, houses and money?
10. How many differences can you find between the location of Cornwall and Florence - both physically and metaphorically? How do the characters change in the different locations and how does this impact the other characters and the plot?
11. Sally Beauman claims My Cousin Rachel is "overtly feminist." Do you agree?
12. Will you be going to see the film?!
Thanks so much for reading and do let me know what you think of the film and how your book group gets on with the novel if you choose to read it!
For more recommendations, book group questions and reviews please follow me on Twitter @KatherineSunde3 or via my website bibliomaniacuk.co.uk