Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Jamaica Inn (Daphne du Maurier)

About one year ago, I became obsessed with Daphne du Maurier. I don't know why--I had owned a copy of Rebecca for a few years and got very excited about the prospect of reading it, so to celebrate how much I wanted to read it, I bought seven or eight of her other novels. It doesn't make sense, and I know that. But it happened. This summer, I decided to read another of her novels, and so into Jamaica Inn I went.

Mary Yellan is a farm girl. As her mother dies, Mary promises to live with her Aunt Patience and, hesitant to deny her mother's last wish, she goes off. She is warned by other travelers to stay way before she even arrives at Jamaica Inn, the establishment owned by Patience's husband, Joss Merlyn, and when she does get there, Mary is surprised to find her once-vibrant aunt more a shadow than a person. There's something going on with Joss, something that only happens at night in a locked room in the inn, and it may involve his equally sinister brother, Jem.

Here's the thing about Jamaica Inn--it's a suspense novel low on suspense. I take issue with that because the story relies on our shock and surprise to build the plot up, but I found myself less-than-engaged in finding out what was going on in the inn. The reveal of "something sinister" wasn't particularly exciting, either, and I'm not sure if that's because, living in 2014, I'm desensitized to the kind horror to be found in du Maurier's 1930s novel which takes place in the 1820s; there's also a "whodunnit" element that isn't surprising because crime and mystery novels have been around for long enough that making the guilty person someone who we'd "never suspect" is a tired, pretty transparent tactic.

But the crazy thing is, I still really liked the book. There's a lot of good going on for it: atmospherically, du Maurier hits it out of the park, just like she did in Rebecca. Things are spooky and weird and unsettling, and you feel that way because she wants you to feel that way. She's totally in control of how foreboding the inn seems, and she exercises her power over the reader frequently and always to good effect. There are scenes where Mary is wandering in the night and it's like every scary movie you can think of. Seriously, I was stunned.

Her characterization is equally potent: Joss truly is a terrifying figure, overpowering and vicious. Every conversation in which he participates feel overwhelming, unjust, and frightening. Mary is perfectly drawn as a resilient but out-of-her-league protagonist, like a determined candle that will not be burnt out. Without getting too comparative to Rebecca (which I just really loved, okay?), Mary Yellan is stronger protagonist than our unnamed narrator--she's more compelling and more forceful. Think a somewhat meeker Jane Eyre, and you've got this girl. And I really liked her; I surprised myself by how much I rooted for her.

It's a curious book. It feels dated but still frightening, boring in plot but still engrossing in all other respects. I found out that the BBC adapted it as a miniseries just this year, and I'm probably gonna check that out because I'm curious to see what sort of spooky they manage to conjure up. I would maybe even read it again! Who knows?

My rating: 4/5
Jamaica Inn on Goodreads
See what I've been reading lately!

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