Friday, September 14, 2007

Why Should I Read...?

My Cousin Rachel
Daphne du Maurier, 1951

Daphne du Maurier was a prolific writer of novels and short stories, and most of her work repays careful reading. Many of her novels combine intensely-realised Cornish settings, warped romances, a central mystery, an unstable protagonist and an overwrought Gothic sensibility. When all the elements come together the results can be spectacular, as in her best-known story Rebecca (1938) and The House on the Strand (1969).

Even better than either of these fine novels is My Cousin Rachel. The plot incorporates all of the familiar du Maurier motifs and each enhances the other. The naive young protagonist Philip inherits his cousin's Cornish estate and shortly after, his cousin's widow Rachel visits. Rachel is clearly a woman with a past, and from the outset there are suggestions that she might have poisioned her husband. As the story develops, Philip becomes infatuated with her, moving from hostility to adoration under Rachel's manipulations. Du Maurier depicts the relationship beautfully, never nudging the reader to emphasise her points. It's all there in the text without needing to be underscored.

Philip's mental and physical state unravels as the story unfolds. From being the only character to suspect her at the beginning, he is the only who does not by the end (although his doubts are starting to return). Du Maurier gives plenty of contradictory clues as to Rachel's true nature and motivation and--this is what makes the novel great--never resolves the question at all. The book ends with Rachel's death, and we never know whether she killed one man and plotted against another. It is a rigorous triumph of point-of-view: Philip is the narrator, and he cannot be certain--so neither is the reader. How easy it would have been for du Maurier either to give us an explicit resolution or a heavy hint. It's what the reader expects, and it's taking a big risk not to provide it. In the end, though, it's that risk which takes My Cousin Rachel from a very good novel to a great one.

How has it influenced me?
I have never written a story which doesn't have a beautiful, enigmatic (anti-) heroine, invariably more intelligent than the male central character. I'm not unique in that, but I've never seen it done better than the character of Rachel Ashley. The combination of mystery and romance so favoured by du Maurier has also underpinned all of my plots: when the elements are properly intertwined, they make a rock-solid plot structure.

Lessons for the aspiring writer
You don't have to tie everything up: sometimes less is more.
The limitations of first-person narration can sometimes be a strength


David Isaak said...

This is fun. Are you going to work your way through all 10 on your recommended list?

Tim Stretton said...

I sure am -- in no particular order. It's a useful discipline to make myself think about why these books have made such an impact on me.