My Cousin Rachel by Daphne du Maurier (1951)

A book that I read as an adolescent, having seen the film with Olivia de Havilland and Richard Burton on television. News of the release of a new film piqued my curiosity, so I read the book again after a gap of more than 40 years.

It’s as well-written and as much of a page-turner as ever, but those intervening years have taught me to look for more than a story in a novel. Whereas the lack of a conclusion annoyed me as a teenager, now I appreciate du Maurier’s ambiguities and uncertainties. The first chapter makes his guilt clear . . . and also acts as a brilliant hook into the tale. As the narrator, Philip can present his ambivalence and pendulum-swinging emotions directly and even sympathetically to the reader. Rachel is as fascinating to us as she is to Philip and his neighbours. The stolid masculine peace of the Ashley home is disturbed and enhanced by her foreign charm and cleverness. Seeing her only through Philip’s eyes, the reader is as unsure as he is of her role in Ambrose’s death. And yet . . . in his ignorance and infatuation, Philip may be a very unreliable narrator. Given her penniless situation and her extravagance, it’s entirely plausible that Rachel is both charming and calculating.

What I couldn’t have noticed the first time round in my unsophisticated reading were the contrasts which mirror Philip’s fluctuating feelings: Cornwall/Florence, male/female, hate/love, cold/heat, travelled/rooted. Like the unanswerable question of “Was Rachel innocent or guilty?”, the scales are finely balanced.

Yes, still a wonderful read.

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