I feel like I’ve been starting every book review recently with, “I’ve been wanting to read this book for forever, and I finally did!” And this is yet another book which falls into this category. However, in my defense, I’m working really hard this year on decreasing my ever-increasing TBR (it’s a constant struggle!).
Daphne Du Maurier is one of those authors I’ve heard of so often, but I’ve never actually read one of her books, despite seeing multiple movie adaptations of her novels. I love the movie adaptation of Rebecca in 1940, starring Laurence Olivier and Joan Fontaine, as well as the Jamaica Inn film from 1939, starring one my favorite actresses of all time, Maureen O’Hara. Du Maurier is one of the most famous gothic novelists of all time, up there with Mary Shelley and Bram Stoker. She lived from 1907 to 1989 in England, and some of her most famous books (outside of this one) are Rebecca (1938) and My Cousin Rachel (1951) (made into a movie in 2017, starring Rachel Weisz and Sam Claflin). And I was surprised she also wrote a short story called “The Birds,” which in turn Alfred Hitchcock adapted into the famous horror classic film by the same name in 1963.
If I were to categorize her writing, it would be gothic horror or gothic romance, similar to that of Dracula or The Haunting of Hill House.
Synopsis: Set during the Regency Era of England, Mary Yellan is an orphan, after her mother dies tragically when Mary is twenty-three. She journeys up north to live with her Aunt Patience and her aunt’s husband, who runs a hotel known as the Jamaica Inn. But when she arrives, she realizes the locals are terrified to go near the inn and her violent uncle Joss Merlyn may have something to do with the many shipwrecks on the coast. As she begins to learn dark powers are afoot, she realizes she might be ensnared by the dangerous life of her aunt’s husband, and his handsome criminal brother.
My favorite part of this book was the gothic atmosphere. Du Maurier knows how to set a creepy mood like few authors I have read before. Mary, while being a fierce, courageous woman, is also one who is simply an ordinary girl thrown into a dangerous situation she could never imagine to be caught in. I wasn’t a massive fan of the romance (I’ll get into the details in a bit), but I loved the majority of the characters. Even the ones you were meant to dislike, like Uncle Joss, were still compelling and tormented individuals. The ending, though, I wasn’t entirely happy with, which is why I gave this book four out of five stars, but mostly it was an entirely enjoyable book to read.
There is something so haunting about reading this book. Perhaps it is because Mary is such an innocent, good person, thrown into a dangerous situation where she cannot trust anyone. Perhaps it is simply because Du Maurier used haunting imagery to excite the reader’s appetite for horror. And while the book is as much a romance, mystery, and adventure, it has encompassing horror tones throughout.
My favorite character by far was Joss Merlyn himself. He is cruel, constantly threatening to kill his wife and Mary. He is a murderer, and a dangerous giant of a man (he’s described in the book as being just under seven feet tall). But he is also a tormented soul, who has nightmares and wakes up certain that the ghosts of those he has murdered will come to kill him. He is a drunkard, perhaps drowning himself in drink to cope with what he has done. He makes every one of the other interesting characters in the book seem shallow compared to him. Which is why, perhaps, I disliked his ending the most (more on that in the spoiler section).
But while Joss was my favorite character, that did not mean that the other characters were not interesting. You have Mary’s Aunt Patience (what an ironic name) who loves Joss and would die for him, but is clearly a victim of his abuse and suffering from a sort of Stockholm Syndrome. You have Joss’s much younger brother Jem, who is Mary’s love interest in the book. He is a horse thief, and a boy who grew up in a troubled family (his father was a drunk who beat his mother, and his two older brothers turned to a life of crime at a young age). You have Squire Basset, the magistrate of the town who is trying to expose Joss for his crimes. You have the Vicar Francis Davey, who helps Mary during several dangerous circumstances.
My point is that this book features an exceptional cast of characters, each one interesting in their own right.
As for the plot, I feel as if some of the suspense was ruined for me because I have seen the 1939 movie (several times, and I love it). While the book is very different from the movie, it kept most of the twists from the book, making me know early on who to trust and who not to, even when Mary herself was confused as to who was good. In that sense, I wish I had read this book having not watched the movie, because I feel the twists near the end would have been so much better if I hadn’t seen them coming. Saying that, they were well done.
Now, in order to talk more about the ending, let’s get into some spoilers!
There are two main complaints I have about this book, and they both have to do with the ending.
First is Joss’s and Patience’s deaths. I do not mind that they died (they also died in the movie) and instead I mind the circumstances of their death. Mary leaves the inn to go find Squire Bassat and Francis Davey to inform on her uncle after she learns he is a wrecker (he wrecks ships on the coast, kills all the people on board, and then loots the ship and takes anything of value). When she returns back to the inn with a servant, she finds Joss dead with a knife in the back. I feel as if a character as interesting as he was deserved more than just a quick death off-page (it’s off-screen, but for a book…I might have just made up that word). Equally, Patience is found stabbed upstairs as well, making both their deaths feel anti-climatic.
Anyway, so Francis Davey is found to be the murderer and Mary is finally free to live her life. Now we come to my second complaint having to do with the romance. Up until this point, the romance between Mary and Jem hasn’t taken up too much of the plot, so I didn’t mind it. Until the last chapter.
Mary wants to returns south to her old home of Helford, but Jem decides to travel north. Mary asks him to settle down and return with her. He refuses, saying he’s a wandering man and isn’t willing to change his ways. And what does she do? Does she (A) be a normal human being and say, “Okay, see ya,” or does she (B) be an idiot and run away with a criminal with no prospects. If you guessed A, you’d be wrong, because Mary literally throws out all the sense she had from the beginning of the book and runs off with Jem. Keep in mind, yes, he’s not as bad as his brother, but he’s threatened her a few times and even asked her to sleep with him randomly (there was also the scene where he kisses her without her constant, but I’m glossing over that). Even in the end, when she admits she loves him, he never says anything about loving her.
I mean, really, Mary? Why would she want anything to do with a criminal after the example she saw with Joss and her aunt? And didn’t that relationship turn out well? I mean, is she an idiot?
Anyway, the ending disappointed me a bit, because I wanted Mary to finally be able to stand on her own two feet. I understand that this takes place during a time where she couldn’t just make her own way in life, but Squire Bassat and his wife offered to take her into their home, so she was in no means friendless or without a place to stay. But she still chose Jem. Why?
Despite the imperfect ending, I really enjoyed this book. It’s a classic gothic adventure, and I look forward to reading more of Daphne Du Murier’s books. She’s such a vivid writer, describing the scenes with such detail I feel as if I am there. But she also grasps the depth of emotions of humanity, which is rare to find in many gothic novels of that time.
There is also a TV mini-series made of this book from 2013, but I have yet to see it. However, I watched a trailer and it certainly looks closer to the book then the 1939 movie.
Have you heard of this author or this book? Have you read any of Du Murier’s other books? Or seen any adaptations of her novels? Let me know your thoughts down in the comments, follow my blog for more musings and, as always,
Best wishes in your life full of adventure,