My Cousin Rachel, by Daphne du Maurier

An atmospheric story of romance and destruction, My Cousin Rachel is arguably just as good as the more famous Rebecca. The plot is centred around the mysterious woman who unexpectedly comes into the life of Philip Ashley, when his idolised cousin Ambrose marries her in Italy, and subsequently dies. Philip, who was raised by Ambrose, is heartbroken by his cousin’s marriage, devastated by his death, and harbours a strong resentment towards the woman who stole Ambrose’s affection and kept him away from him. His anger is driven by the troubling letters he received from Ambrose not long before his death, letters which seem to suggest that Rachel was the cause of his untimely demise… When Rachel turns up at Philip’s Cornish home, high emotions come to the fore, and fate has more cards to play.

Du Maurier’s work is spell-binding because of her admirable skill in characterisation. She manages to portray the moods of the young and immature Philip Ashley so convincingly that the reader at once understands his narration from his point of view, but is also able to see further than he can himself, and interpret his behaviour – and that of the other characters – more than he does himself. The book’s plot is tantalising and engaging, the characters well-rounded, interesting and sympathetic. The prose is beautifully executed, and the structure of the book is magnificent. From the opening sentences – “They used to hang men at Four Turnings in the old days. Not any more, though.” –to the last words, which are actually the same as the opening, the reader is taken on a journey through Philip’s mind, his recollections of his life, his relationship with Ambrose, and with the woman who brings a certain paradoxical calm chaos upon his life in Cornwall. It is a rare novel which brings such a sense of understanding with its final words, as does My Cousin Rachel, and which also leaves some questions unanswered.

It is difficult to evaluate much more of the work without giving away aspects of the plot, which is full of suspense. The story is a good mystery, with cliff-hangers aplenty, hints of things to come, and a constant sense of foreboding which does not put the reader off, but is the engine and powerhouse of the story.

This review follows my listening to the audiobook version of My Cousin Rachel, narrated by Jonathan Pryce. It is an excellent rendition.

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