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My Cousin Rachel by Daphne du Maurier

Book Review by GJ Williams

With the sudden splurge in psychological thrillers with less than perfect women, it is easy to think this is a new genre. But think again. The doyenne of the style, complete with ‘the bitch’ character was Daphne du Maurier – she of Rebecca and Jamaica Inn fame.

My Cousin Rachel is the story of Philip Ashley, raised by his older cousin Ambrose to be the future owner of a large country estate on the Cornish coast. Young Philip emulates his adored cousin in every way – reclusive, un-emotional, little time for women, no thought of romance, happy to live in a rather dusty house with no hint of comfort. Life for Philip is a round of walking dogs across the land and checking on tenant farmers. What could be better than becoming the next Ambrose?

Things change when Ambrose must go to warmer climes for his health. In letters home, he announces that he has met up with their cousin Rachel. Words soften, and in the spring he announces their marriage. Philip is jealous, but this turns to concern as Ambrose begins to talk of terrible headaches and an oppressive atmosphere. His references to Rachel have moved to criticism and suspicion. A Godfather advises that this may be a sign of a brain tumour. Full of worry, Philip packs up and heads to Italy. He arrives to find his beloved cousin dead, Rachel gone and the only source of information – the dubious lawyer Rainaldi. At 25, Philip is heir to the estate as Ambrose’s will was not changed, though he cannot get control until he is 25.

Two weeks after arriving home, Philip receives a letter to say that Cousin Rachel has arrived in Plymouth and will be coming to visit. Philip is full of resentment and suspicion – determined to make her unwelcome. But it all changes as Rachel’s charm and sweetness begins to turn Philip’s mind to romance and handing over the estate.

The story takes you through the spiders-web of intrigue, suspicion, obsession and desire which fill Philips every waking moment. Is Rachel a grieving widow or did she poison her husband? Is she a helpful cousin trying to upgrade the state or is she an avaricious spender, bent on emptying the family coffers for her own gain? Is she a lonely woman cast adrift in a world where status comes from marriage, or is she in league with Rainaldi who suddenly appears at the estate? Why do letters never sent raise Philip’s concern and yet his passion grows?

In the end, belief and disbelief lead to a dramatic climax and you are left still wondering. Was she good or was she evil?

Despite being published in 1951 and set in a much earlier period, My Cousin Rachel feels as fresh as if it were written yesterday. Such is the story-telling craftsmanship of Daphne du Maurier. You are whisked into a dark world of suspicion and obsession and find yourself as bewildered as poor Philip while also wanting to take him by the scruff and shout ‘wake up!’ Or are you wrong? duMaurier was the mistress of tension and every page grips you until the final turn. I defy you to be able to put this one down.

We hear that a film of the book is due for release in 2017 starring Rachel Weisz and Sam Claflin.

About the author

Daphne du Maurier was the daughter of a writing and acting family and would have met many of the actor and literary stars of her time. Despite this, she was a quiet woman and became more and more reclusive as she became more feted as an author. Such was her shyness that she tried to avoid going to Buckingham Palace for her Dame Commander Queen’s birthday honour and scuttled out of a back door to avoid attention.

She was a prolific author and delivered short stories, novels, screen plays and biographies. She was always described as a ‘romantic novelist’ – a term she hated as so many of her novels have a hard edge, a sinister twist and a strong hint of paranormal.

She was a woman of two faces. She was cold even chilly in her personal life, though this may have been due to her covering bisexuality. In friendships she was remembered as warm and welcoming. She was known as a recluse, then spilled her feelings in national papers after the release of the film A Bridge Too Far. Whatever her true nature – and maybe it was both – she wrote timeless, gripping psychological drama.

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