Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier
I have just realised something, gosh I'm daft at times. During this novel, at no point do you ever learn the name of the narrator, we only ever know her as 'My Wife' or 'Mrs de Winter'. More on this later.
First of all, I would like to say it was nice to be reading this on the birthday of my sister-in-law, also called Rebecca. Clearly I am having a moment reading auspicious books on auspicious days. My Rebecca is definitely a lot nicer than the Rebecca in this book though!
At the start of the novel, our narrator is companion to the wealthy American, Mrs Van Hopper. They encounter Max de Winter and we learn that a year earlier he lost his wife, the beautiful Rebecca, in a tragic boating accident whilst the couple were at their home Manderley. Like Rebecca, Manderley is an unseen character and just like her is lauded as a thing of beauty, taste and excellent class. As the friendship deepens with Max, she accepts his sudden proposal of marriage and after a brief honeymoon, returns to Manderley. It is here that our narrator begins to learn more about Rebecca: her kindness, grace and her ability to run a home a home like Manderley. She also encounters the frankly terrifying Mrs Danvers, who will stop at nothing to keep Rebecca's memory alive. But then Rebecca's boat is discovered and a body is found inside.
I read the novel as part of my BBC Big Read Challenge and it is not hard to see why this made the list. The novel is utterly terrifying and claustrophobic. First of all there is the narrator question, we never learn her name and this is a fantastic writing device. Mrs de Winter is frightened, timid and is very much out of her depth at Manderley. She changes nothing, for fear of causing upset, so the family eat the same food eaten when Rebecca was alive, she looks after Rebecca's dog, writes her letters where Rebecca sat. Rebecca's presence is felt everywhere and she is like a cloying perfume that won't go away. Beautiful yet nauseating.
This makes for uncomfortable reading, especially when Mrs Danvers is on hand to remind the new Mrs de Winter of how things have always been done. Max is no help whatsoever, as the oppressiveness of Rebecca's legacy causes him to retreat in on himself and he isolates himself from his new wife.
There is something ghostly about the novel and again the narrator question compounds this. As Rebecca's energy gets stronger, the new Mrs de Winter almost imperceptibly begins to feel like a ghostly shade and even questions at one point if Rebecca has not possessed her. This all takes place under the watchful gaze of the cruel Mrs Danvers with her black gowns and 'skull-like' face, her silent step always watching. The new Mrs de Winter begins to feel slightly out of reach and the fact we do not know her name adds to this.
The discovery of Rebecca's boat brings a break in the gathering storm. Whilst our narrator, devoted to Max, is convinced that he will be unable to bear the torment, soon comes to discover that all is not as it seems. It is a watershed moment that provides a pivotal turning point in the claustrophobia of the writing.
This novel is a wonderful gothic read. The character of Rebecca shines for all the wrong reasons and the writing is truly a masterclass in the face of gathering fear. This well deserves its place on the Big Read list.