Friday, August 15, 2008

Jamaica Inn by Daphne DuMaurier

Interestingly enough, I always thought Daphne DuMaurier's Jamaica Inn was a tale set in... well Jamaica. It's not. The story is set in the southern most county of Cornwall, England in the early 19th century. This was just the first of many surprises in this dark, but well crafted tale.

As the story opens, twenty-three year old Mary Yellan is traveling to Jamaica Inn to fulfill her mother's dying wish for her -- to leave her childhood home and go and live with her mother's beloved sister, Aunt Patience, whom she has not seen for over a decade. Mary remembers her Aunt as a beautiful and bubbly woman, but nothing can prepare Mary for what she learns upon her arrival to the Inn.

Jamaica Inn, once a prosperous establishment along the North/South road between Bodmin and Launceton on the moors of southern England is now but a dusty shell shrouded in mystery and fear. No respectable person stops at the Inn anymore. Even the daily coach from Bodmin rushes past like a "scared black beetle." As for Aunt Patience, she like the Inn, is but a mere shell of her formal self. What vile things has Aunt Patience seen to turn her into the extremely nervous, distraught, and prematurely aged woman that greets Mary upon her arrival? It is obvious whatever it is -- it is linked to her vulgar and abusive husband, Uncle Jos, an extreme alcoholic who has many nasty secrets.

Afraid, but determined not leave without her Aunt, Mary stays on and soon learns what some of these secrets are -- and they are indeed dark and disturbing. And yet, surely there is someone out there who can help her... dare she trust her Uncle's younger and attractive, but mysterious brother, Jem? Perhaps the Squire or Vicar can be of aide before it is too late?

From the start of Jamaica Inn DuMaurier captures your attention immediately and hooks you until the end. You read on not only because you must know the mystery, but also because DuMaurier's writing lends to page turning. I usually know a book is going to be really good when I can't get beyond the first page without jotting down a quote. And DuMaurier has such a way with words:

"It was a cold grey day in late November. The weather had changed overnight, when a backing wind brought a granite sky and a mizzling rain with it, and although it was now only a little after two o'clock in the afternoon the pallour of a winter evening seemed to have closed upon the hills, cloaking them in mist." (Chapter 1, page 1)

The descriptions, the phrasing before I turned that first page I already felt with nearly all my senses the scene she was describing. It was as if in my minds eye I could almost see and with my nose I could smell and with my body I could feel that November weather. I nearly forgot it was the middle of August and I was sitting on my couch chilled only by the air conditioning and a fan.

This is the third of DuMaurier's books that I have read. I read her most famous work, Rebecca years ago and was captivated by her storytelling, although until this year I never thought to pick up another of her books. And then in January I came upon My Cousin Rachel, which I thoroughly enjoyed. And so it comes as no surprise to me that I enjoyed Jamaica Inn as well. The story is a very quick read at 303 pages, which I finished in three days and if I had more free time I might have finished sooner by pulling an "all-nighter".

One thing I noticed that might throw the naive reader off is the publisher's choice of a book cover. I have no idea why, but recent publishers, particularly those of the paperback versions tend to use really frilly script and colors, which would lead the naive reader to believe DuMaurier's books are silly tales of romance, but that picture couldn't be further from the truth. My advice is to remember the old saying, "don't judge a book by it's cover." To which I add, "at least until you've read the back and even then you might be wrong."

I would recommend this book to both the fans and those unfamiliar with DuMaurier's work. You won't be disappointed. Until you know whether you will truly love her work I would suggest borrowing the book from the library versus buying it and I would suggest starting with one of the three I've mentioned before launching out into her other less known works.

* Two post script notes: As I was reading Jamaica Inn several town and county references sounded vaguely familiar. I took a moment to look them up and found this... Helston, where Jamaica Inn heroine, Mary Yellan spends the first part of her life is also the same town that Margaret Hale in Elizabeth Gaskell's North and South spends the early part of her life. Both Mary and Margaret travel to the north to a new home due to unforeseen circumstances. In Mary's case it is only to another small town within the same county of Cornwall, whereas Margaret moves clear to another county farther in the north of England.

DuMaurier's tale, while pure fiction is based on real places, including a real Jamaica Inn. Built in 1750, the Inn is still doing business today and guests can relive some of what they've read in the novel when they stay on as guests.


Anonymous said...

I LOVE this book! But then, I love most things by Du Maurier!

Anonymous said...

Yes, I read "Frenchman's Creek" and enjoyed it, although it's more adventure than suspense, I think. It's been a while. The movie was good too (with Joan Fontaine). I remember really liking "The King's General" too.

The Miss Marple I watched was "Nemesis".