As someone who unashamedly loves all varieties of historical fiction and romance (preferably placed together in one work), and has many copies of Jane Austen’s novels sitting on my bookshelf at home, you’d have thought I’d have come across this book years ago.
It was only until I was enthusiastically recommended and sent du Maurier’s Rebecca by a friend (who ardently promised that this would be a book I would love) did I realise about twenty pages in – why on earth hadn’t I read this sooner?
In a similar vein to Northanger Abbey (albeit with far less satire) or Jane Eyre, this book is a timeless example of just how gripping a gothic romance can be. And now with an upcoming Netflix film scheduled for later this year, what better time to review the book it is based off?
“We’re not meant for happiness, you and I”
The preface is a simple yet effective one – an unnamed young woman (the heroine of the novel and its narrator) marries the recently widowed Maxim de Winter, moves into his house, and is haunted by the metaphorical ghost of his late wife at every turn. The narrative, however, is anything but.
There is something instantly captivating about du Maurier’s writing. There is also something eerie too. An uncomfortable sense of foreboding and suspense clings to every page, conveyed wonderfully through the Nick Carraway-esque unreliable first-person narration of the heroine. There are plenty of nail-biting twists and turns as we follow the heroine settling into her new life, that made me feverishly tear through the book just to find out what happens next.
What makes this novel so effective is that you are just as kept in the dark as she is. You are privy to her every flight of fancy and are gripped by her over-active imagination. Every piece of information – true or not, important or not – is tantalisingly drip-fed to you. As I read I found myself trying to figure out the clues, if only to try and understand and see what the heroine could not.
“Last night, I dreamt I went to Manderley again”
Of course, then there’s Maxim’s late wife Rebecca. As I learned more about her, I was slowly horrified and enthralled. Her presence is everywhere, in the people the narrator meets, and in the clothes she wears. For instance, there’s a fantastically creepy part where the housekeeper, Mrs Danvers, delights in showing Rebecca’s old bedroom like some sort of glorified, well-preserved museum wing that had me wanting to fling the book away from me and shudder.
But, despite all this, it is how du Maurier writes about Manderley that is my favourite thing about the novel. There is something rich and alien about it. It is a sprawling, unfamiliar house the narrator gets lost in upon arriving, a place where she feels watched from every window, and where the garden, with its skeleton-like trees, is a monstrous place with “no sense or beauty” to it. The claustrophobic nature of it only serves to heighten the suspense, and when the events of the novel and actions of its characters have run their course, you find that Rebecca – like all good gothic novels – begins and ends with this house.
So, if you’re a fan of gothic horror, romance, suspense, or even detective novels, and are looking for a new read, I’d heartily recommend this book.