Daphne du Maurier, The House on the Strand (1969)

I’m not sure what I expected from this novel when I stumbled upon this irresistible Amazon Kindle offer. Dare I say that at 2$, I don’t really stop to question my expectations? The author’s name is twice bigger than the title, you’ll notice, and the cover is all blurry. I think I expected something darkly romantic. Well, there is that, but the rest was a complete surprise.

This novel is one of the latest works of Du Maurier, and that should have given me some hint. 1969 is not known for being the year of sobriety, right? The book actually revolves on the idea of taking some new drugs that are addictive and induce you in a state of… time travel! And where else than the 12th century? Psychedelics and damsels in distress, what an implausible mix!

There are so many layers to this book. A man, Dick Young, struggling in a midlife career crisis and in a fledgling marriage, is invited to stay at his old best friend’s Cornwall home in his absence, and teased into trying some drug that his friend has discovered. When you drink it you find yourself at the same place but in the 14th century, able to see and hear people back then, but unable to interact with them. Dick’s present life is not satisfying, and his relation to his friend, Professor Magnus Lane, is also fraught with heavy context, because Magnus is more successful, and a sort of bully. On the other hand, Dick is totally mesmerized by the 14th century world, and he becomes obsessed by a particular woman.

In retrospect, I vaguely remember a few stories in the Don’t Look Now collection that were in the same vein. It has the same heavy atmosphere bordering on science-fiction, some psychic experiments and a strong sense of foreboding. The collection was published in the early 1970s so that’s probably themes that were on Du Maurier’s mind at the time. I read on the internet that the story The Breakthrough was a first version of some scenes of The House on the Strand, although the novel is much more enjoyable.

In the book you can see how much Du Maurier loved Cornwall, its villages and landscapes shaped in a long history. As for me, I am very ignorant of the political context of 14th century England, and this was a bit frustrating. Yet the suspense is really strong (after a rather slow start) and when all the plot lines, past and present, came to a head, I could hardly put the book down.

It’s not a perfect book, but it is fascinating and makes me want to read more books by Daphne Du Maurier.

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