Wednesday, August 17

Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier

I suspect that had I gone into this book with a slightly clearer idea of what it was like, I would have appreciated it a little more. I had the idea from the blurb and Goodreads reviews that it would be a straight Gothic romance in the spirit of something like Wuthering Heights or Jane Eyre, with an infuriatingly weak protagonist. I think I only really realised after finishing the book that it is in fact a distinctly modern work, more psychological horror than romance, with a strongly-characterised narrator who is chilling in her single-minded obsession with Rebecca, and all she represents.

In fact, the book it reminded me most of was The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters. Both works are defined by a flawed upwardly-mobile narrator whose obsessions with social class come to the forefront when they establish a presence in the manor houses in the orbit of which they spent their childhoods. Both are ghost stories, though in both the 'ghost' in question represents something much realer, if psychological and equally intangible; here of course, the figure of Rebecca which haunts the narrator isn't a real presence in Manderley. Instead she is solely a product of the narrator's troubled psyche, and those of the other inhabitants.

Rebecca feels claustrophobic. Reading it, we are trapped in the viewpoint of the narrator - the second Mrs de Winter - and we cannot escape experiencing every neurotic and paranoid thought that passes through her head. And there are so many. Her terrible self-image - it's hinted that some childhood trauma is the reason behind it - is reflected in the text at every point, from her whirlwind romance with (the fabulously named) Maximilian de Winter (which at first she refuses to believe could possibly lead anywhere because honestly who would be interested in her?), to her total inability to impose her will on the staff at Manderley, despite their clear desire for her to do so.

And the more the narrator learns about Rebecca, the more her thoughts tend towards holding her predecessor up as an example of everything she can't be. Rebecca was beautiful. Rebecca was aristocratic. Rebecca knew her own mind. Rebecca was loved. The second Mrs de Winter will never be as good a mistress of Manderley, or a wife to Maxim, as Rebecca was. In fact, the narrator doesn't even possess a name - at least one we're ever told - while Rebecca's name is the title of her book! There's a horrible, telling moment soon after the narrator's marriage and arrival at Manderley, when, in response to a caller asking for "Mrs de Winter", the narrator replies that she's sorry, but Mrs de Winter has been dead for months.

Soon, this obsession turns a little creepy. Finding a dedication to 'Max' from Rebecca in a book of poetry that he's lent to her, the narrator tears out the page (something I was taught at a young age by my grandfather never to do) and sets it on fire, even as her suitor is in the next room. She looks for traces of Rebecca everywhere, once she gets to Manderley, and probes the staff for information about Rebecca's marriage to Maxim. She imagines Rebecca's mannerisms and tries them on herself, to the consternation of her husband. The vividly-drawn character of Mrs Danvers, the housekeeper, with her terrifying devotion to her late mistress, is often cited as a key reason for the book's enduring success. However, contrasting the narrator and Mrs Danvers, and the changes that each undergo in response to the revelations of the final third, it strikes me that it is the former who is the more terrible of the two.

All that having been said, I don't want to give the impression that it's not an easy or pleasurable read. In fact it's a joy, and I found myself marveling at the language frequently. It's written in an elevated, archaic style, reflecting the Gothic romance novels of a century prior which inspired it. Du Maurier uses words like Bradshaw (a railway guide) and questing (as a verb, a lot) and luncheon and wagon-lit. The characters say things like "don't you really?" and "you look very well in that costume!", and the narrator complains that even the lowliest servant belongs at Manderley "more than I should ever do." At one point, a rather unsavoury character is said to have "laughed, opening his mouth", which is excellent and made me do a double-take.

The most evocative language is perhaps to be found in the book's opening pages, with the famous first line - "last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again" - preceding an elegy to a lost, rural, manor-house idyll to rival anything I've read in its sense of yearning. It's a haunting theme that recurs throughout the book, and du Maurier conjures it well.

Rebecca's writing captured my attention even when my interest in the plot waned, and wane it did. Though reflecting in hindsight, my opinion of the book has improved, and I can appreciate the artistry with which du Maurier achieves what she's set out to do, not fully understanding what I was getting into meant that I couldn't appreciate it at the time. Instead I was annoyed at the slow-moving plot, the twists that I saw coming before they happened, the twists that I saw coming that failed to materialise, the constant Rebecca Rebecca Rebecca of the narrator's train of thought. I was nonplussed by the will-they-won't-they exercise in tension-building that made up the whole final quarter of the novel, and that ending! well! No spoilers here, but I would advise anyone getting into Rebecca to look at it as a meditation on the nature and consequences of obsession told in the guise of a Gothic romance.

Going into it straight, like I did, you might feel a little like the butt of a practical joke that du Maurier's played. And it's a good joke, skillfully told. I'm just enjoying it more now that I'm in on it.

Notes on the audiobook:

I didn't know this until I started doing the research for this review, but the audiobook is narrated by Anna Massey CBE, a BAFTA-winning actress known for playing "nannies, nuns, and nurses", often in period dramas and thrillers, including a 1979 TV adaptation of Rebecca in which she played Mrs Danvers!

Her Guardian obituary (she died in 2011) makes mention of her abilities in playing "cold and repressed" characters and of her "capacity for stillness". Indeed, her audiobook performance of Rebecca is perfect and chilling, and probably played no small part in my assessment of the second Mrs de Winter's character. She suits Rebecca perfectly, and I don't regret in the slightest listening to the book instead of reading it.

Rating: 3/5
Amazon: Rebecca
Audible: Rebecca
Goodreads: Rebecca

Wednesday, August 3

Savage Magic by Lloyd Shepherd

You don't see many historical novels written in the present tense. There's three reasons for this. Firstly, novels have really only been written in the present tense for the past few decades, so if you're writing one that's supposed to be aping the style of the time (as this one does, badly), writing it in the present tense is an immediate barrier to that. Secondly, it's weird that the action has already happened a long time ago, but is also happening now. It's a strange and alienating paradox.

And thirdly, it's can just be a bit clunky at the best of times. Authors like Hilary Mantel have justified it by saying that it brings the past into the present, and that it captures "the jitter and flux of events, the texture of them, their ungraspable speed". And, yeah, I didn't like Wolf Hall, but I can appreciate the beautiful writing and how the present tense worked well as part of that style. In Savage Magic it just sounds like this: 
He asks after Sir Henry, and is told that the master of the house is up in London and has been for some weeks. Mrs Graham expresses some satisfactions that this is so as they sit down.
That just sounds clangy to me. I have trouble even picturing what's going on here. Plus how exactly has Mrs Graham, Charles Horton's social superior, expressed her satisfaction that Sir Henry, her cousin and lover, is away? That's a real minefield of a social situation, and emblematic of Shepherd's really sketchy worldbuilding.

And the writing is altogether generally sloppy, as if there wasn't much thought put into it. For example, do we really think that Aaron Graham has "heard good things" about the Hoxton madhouse?
He makes a note to visit Brooke House when he can, and perhaps even to consider placing Abigail in another institution - the Hoxton madhouse, perhaps, of which he has heard good things.
And can anyone picture this woman?
She is, by Horton's reckoning, over fifty years old. She wears clothes which once must have been respectable but which are now threadbare, although care has obviously been taken to maintain their dignity to the extent that such a thing is possible. Her grey hair is almost bald in places, and two or three ugly warts molest her face. But when she speaks out to him, her voice is warm and kind.
Plus did Shepherd just say that her clothes have dignity and that her hair is bald? This reads like it was sleep-written. He also drops in little bits of post-modern-ish anachronisms which are probably supposed to be funny:
Still the subject of what took place in Maria's cell the day before is not mentioned explicitly. It is a huge creature - an elephant, perhaps - that sits in the room beside them, about which neither is allowed to talk.
Or crazy switches in viewpoint:
And so, Charles Horton, you find yourself on a country lane face-to-face with a witch. What does one say in such a situation?
These would almost maybe work as humorous counterpoints in a novel that was better at aping the style of early-1800s literature, and that painted a complete and coherent picture of a dark and mysterious Regency-era London. Savage Magic, however, falls flat when it comes to describing its world, sketching out its locations, characters, and social issues with the lightest of tones, and keeping them free of the interesting details that would make them interesting to read about. The only evocative element is the setting of Brooke House - Shepherd did his research here, and it shows. It's the scenes in this asylum, particularly the converted chapel, that are the most vividly imagined.

Very occasionally, too, the writing gets good and we're treated with a flash of insightful characterisation or clever humour which shows the heights to which Savage Magic could have risen:
Sir Henry Tempest stands in front of his portrait with, Horton presumes, no satirical intent. But the juxtaposition of the idealised portrayal with the fat, angry and contemptuous reality is too stark to be ignored. Horton, after a mere three minutes with Sir Henry, thinks he can picture a small army of servants stood here where he is now, inwardly smirking at how far the real man falls from the man in oils up there on the wall.
It's a pity then that most of the novel is as reductive, inane, and ridiculous as this actual quote that one of the characters actually says to another:
'Hold your tongue, trollop. And tell me where Talty is, lest you spend the rest of this night in the watch house.'
I think there must be a reference work somewhere that states that if you want your novel to sound 'period', you should have your characters tell each other to hold your tongue, call each other trollop, say lest, whilst, and amongst instead of unless, while, and among, threaten each other with extended stays in the watch house, and refer to units of time with the pronoun this (this day instead of today, this night instead of the night, this hour... well you get the idea). And that you should call one of them Talty 

I haven't said much about the plot, partly because there's not much to say about the plot. It's a many-stranded, multi-viewpoint narrative which follows Charles Horton's investigations into witchcraft allegations at a manor just inside the M25, his wife's self-imposed incarceration in a lunatic asylum, and his colleague's investigation into multiple gory murders in the West End. They all come together in the end, through some hand-wavey explanations about magic, though the reader - like all the characters - is likely to be left none-the-wiser. Even the epiphanies of the detective-type characters amount to little more than "I get it now! It makes no logical sense!" Sigh. And I had such high hopes.

I've not read the first two in the series, so maybe that would have changed my perception of this book slightly. But I can't imagine they'd be that different. I won't be reading any more of them and I can't recommend that anyone else should.

Rating: 1/5
Amazon: Savage Magic
Goodreads: Savage Magic

Tuesday, August 2

Look What I Just Bought! Non-Fiction at the Owl Edition

After getting my twice-yearly haircut at a new place in Kentish Town last week, I decided to spend some time in my local independent bookshop, Owl. Although it's not technically independent, as it's owned by Daunt Books, and it's not technically my most-local bookshop, as that would be The Hellenic Bookservice - specialising in Classics and Modern Greek, it's still the best bookshop within a 20 minute walk from home. They also have a new website, which, it's about time. Even I have a website now.

The Fields Beneath by Gillian Tindall

Like all good local bookshops, Owl has a "Local Interest" section where I found this among the old maps. Apparently it's THE book to read if you're interested in the social history of Kentish Town, and of course you are.

It was originally published in 1977 and for the 2011 edition Tindall has added a preface which actually mentions Owl Bookshop, which is pleasingly meta.

I've started reading this already and am finding it a pleasant, easy read, full of interesting tidbits of local history that I can annoy Daisy with. It's also got lots of maps and old photos, which is nice. As mentioned below, I love maps.

Goodreads: The Fields Beneath
Amazon: The Fields Beneath

Prisoners of Geography by Tim Marshall

Prisoners of Geography: Ten Maps That Tell You Everything You Need to Know About Global Politics is subtitled Ten Maps That Explain Everything About the World in North America, which is an amazing claim, if you think about it. I would have dithered much less over buying that book if I thought it would explain everything about the world.

And I don't read a lot of non-fiction, especially books about geopolitics, so there's a chance that this will just sit on my shelf forever. But I love maps. And it's got a thrilling 4.21 rating on Goodreads, so I'll probably enjoy it, when I get around to it.

Goodreads: Prisoners of Geography
Amazon: Prisoners of Geography 

Books I Narrowly Avoided Buying:
Slade House by David Mitchell and
Ghostwritten by David Mitchell (I've never read any Mitchell, but I like the idea that I might, someday, start)
The Godwits Fly by Robin Hyde
Mislaid by Nell Zink (I really liked The Wallcreeper, but Mislaid hasn't been received quite so positively)
The Good Book: A Humanist Bible by A.C. Grayling (though really the 'biblical' format makes for pretty awkward reading, so I'm not sure why it's being imitated here)