Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again.
This is definitely a departure from the last book I read, and was absolutely intended to be so. I am currently on my holidays, so this book counts as my “trashy holiday reading” – after all, I can’t keep reading classics forever. In a sense, though, I’ve completely failed to meet this aim; what Daphne du Maurier has written here is not only compulsively readable, but brilliantly written and tightly plotted to boot. Rebecca (both the book and the character) had me on the edge of my seat with a significantly raised pulse, especially in its final few chapters – none of which I shall spoil here (apart from in one subtle pun towards the end of this review), just in case you haven’t read it yet.
I have quoted the first line of the book above not only because it is iconic, but also because it is a fascinating opening line when placed in its context. As she begins by introducing unfamiliar characters, jaded by events we’ve yet to be enlightened about, du Maurier lays out her story in its brief opening chapter with layers of suspense and intrigue, teasing us with mentions of forthcoming events. I would not hesitate to label it the best opening chapter of any of the books I’ve read thus far for this blog. Even the style of writing is curious – our narrator and heroine sounds as if she is trying to express herself with a depth of language that doesn’t quite come naturally to her, like she’s trying to impress the reader with her sophisticated language choices. (Don’t believe me? Just look at how many times she uses the word “encroach” in that first chapter alone – or even her wide-ranging attempts to imbue flowers and trees with a sinister personality of their own).
From the very first, our heroine embodies youth and naivety while becoming embroiled in an adult world of dark secrets and even darker motives. Part of what gripped me in the book’s early stages was how much I could see myself in her; she is about my age, and I found myself sympathising with her enormously due to her social aloofness, but what surprised me was that I could also absolutely see myself acting in a very similar way in the circumstances in which she found herself. I’m sure many a feminist reader would find her nameless, bland characterisation horribly offensive, but I think her complete willingness to be subsumed beneath her husband’s name and ancestral home was fascinating and made for some very interesting bearings on the final act of the story. Speaking of her husband, Maxim is a captivating and complex anti-hero, and it was a joy to watch him confront his demons as the book progressed.
But aside from the narrative twists of the book’s second half, most of the strengths of this book lie in the tyrannous villainy of three wonderfully drawn antagonists – and I cannot express how gleeful I found it to read some proper, good old-fashioned villains in a novel for a change. Jack Favell was a despicable rascal who I loved to hate, and Mrs Danvers’ devious nature acts of cruelty are absolutely legendary. But the real star of the show is our eponymous late Mrs de Winter, Rebecca: an embodiment of so many female virtues and vices, simultaneously reprehensible and admirable in her rejection of what society expected of her as both a wife and a member of the upper classes. Ambiguous and thrilling throughout the novel, she is the driving force behind the story despite never meeting our narrator and not even being alive while the story is taking place.
This book kept me absolutely hooked from (ambiguous) start to (surprisingly abrupt) finish, and it was lovely to blaze through a book so quickly when a few of my recent reads have felt a little overlong. All the more impressive, really, when one considers that prior to my reading the novel, this hilarious skit was my only frame of reference. Now to watch the film, in order to keep up with my “Best Picture” challenge!