Review: ‘Jamaica Inn’ by Daphne Du Maurier

This review contains slight spoilers

Ahead of her, on the crest, and to the left, was some sort of a building, standing back from the road. She could see tall chimneys, murky dim in the darkness. There was no other house, no other cottage. If this was Jamaica, it stood alone in glory, foursquare to the winds. Mary gathered her cloak around her and fastened the clasp.

-Chapter 1

On the face of it, Jamaica Inn is a thriller. After the death of her mother, 23-year-old Mary Yellan moves from Helford to Cornwall in order to be with her mother’s sister, Aunt Patience, and her husband Joss Merlyn who owns a place known as Jamaica Inn. Within the first couple of pages, as the seemingly meek Mary sits in a carriage getting battered to high hell by a Wuthering-inspired Cornish storm, we learn what the catch is. Jamaica Inn carries a rancid reputation, and the landlord Joss is feared and despised by community around them for reasons no one will explain fully. As Mary arrives at the inn, she learns as soon as Joss puts her things in her dingy cell of a room that her uncle is a drunken, violently imposing bully, whilst her mother’s sister is the epitome of the battered wife, timid and tiptoeing, pandering to her husband’s needs. Without pretense, Mary is told that lawlessness is abound at Jamaica Inn, and as price for staying with her relatives, she must essentially put up, shut up, and never question why no one stays, why Joss keeps the company he does, and why sometimes wagons and carts appear under her window seemingly laden with goods.

Without giving everything away, Mary works throughout her time at Jamaica Inn to reveal the darkness that its walls harbor, and the truth behind her uncle’s dealings at Jamaica is every inch as terrible as the hints lead us to believe. Yet, for all of the evil and dark turns that the plot delivers, there’s an essence of stern practicality that hovers around this novel, the epicenter of this being the protagonist herself. Mary is forever a cool, moral head as well as our brilliant heroine who is unapologetically stubborn and passionate. She even may slip into love with the well-meaning rogue that is Jem, the brother of Joss, but with a constant and full awareness of the potential danger and folly, openly lauding herself so we don’t have to do it for her. But then perhaps her perfect workings as the protagonist reflects a wider fault of Jamaica Inn as a whole, in that all the characters seem to fit snugly into their roles of cliché and await their fates. Du Maurier’s prose is far too poetic and complex for such figures, with her writer’s hat permanently tipped to the gothic throughout, conjuring vivid yet formless imaginations. Between the characters and her words, a gap forms, which maybe one expects to be filled with the striking of the supernatural, adding to the essence of the thriller.

Only, there is no supernatural element to this novel, only the sins of men, and the wills of one thoughtful heroine. Whilst it is refreshing to find a thriller that wishes to do away with thrills and pent up emotion, the fact that Du Maurier also seems determined to hang you up with her way with wonders leaves the mind to wonder if a little too much has been taken away, leaving the story to flounder and make us believe that there is going to be more then there actually is. Nevertheless, Jamaica Inn is deeply enjoyable, and smooth to read. The descriptions of a desolate, unlawful world pricking deep into the imagination, and possibly driving it to go beyond the events of the novel itself.

6.5/10

Monthly Reading Round Up: April 2017

In Order:

  • Virginia Woolf, ‘Orlando’ [Re-Read]
  • Carol Joyce Oates, ‘The Tattooed Girl’
  • Judith Flanders, ‘The Victorian City’
  • Toni Morrison, ‘The Bluest Eye’ [Re-Read]
  • Leo Tolstoy, ‘Anna Karenina’

In an effort to fix my god awful habits, I’ve made it a point to start to tracking what I read, and when I finish books. Reading was once such a core part in my life, lost through hardship, and recently I realised how much it depressed me not to have it anymore. Keeping up a regular bookstagram account has done much to kickstart reading regularly. There’s quite a lot of guilt to be found in posting pretty pictures of books you haven’t read!

I thought it was good to start with re-reading a few books here and there too. Going back to pieces of wonderful writing that used to dazzle me, inspire me, make me take considerations beyond my limits. I made a trip back home at the beginning of the month, stopping over in Swansea for a few nights, and Virginia Woolf’s Orlando was the perfect companion. I had read the book during my a-level days, desperate to prove myself a ‘proper’ literature student who clearly read ‘proper’ books. Post-grad me really doesn’t give as much of a toss about that kind of pretence now (that and I have no energy to), and also didn’t remember much about Orlando spare the amazing, out-there plot, and some academic articles I read about the novel that my brain didn’t understand although it pretended to in front of my teacher. Re-reading it was nothing short of a joy.

Orlando steams ahead with its purpose in a singular direction without a care. The narrator drawing us in to a private world of the biography where they assume we are alike, curious and frustrated while walking path to document the choices and being of another. Orlando’s talent of immortality and gender-switching is a detail as both irrelevant and important as other parts of their life, like their relationships and troubles. A determination by Orlando to reject a pertinent suitor in the female part of her life is just as exhilarating as the revelation of her gender change upon her awakening after a deep, week-long slumber. Whether depicting the ordinary or the nonsensicle, Orlando reminded me how Woolf makes magic no matter what: not waiting for your attention- but just taking it. Toni Morrison is much the same, and again, much like with Orlando, re-reading The Bluest Eye was another exercise in paying more attention where it’s due, on dragging that a-level student out of the hole she crawled into and make her re-evaluate the books she read years ago. Here I learnt to appreciate Morrison’s power. Where her words can render you breathless. Making you put down the book as you consider how is it possible to carry so much weight in so little words- how is such a slim book so capable of holding everything in one punch? Morrison makes language bend to her, playing the conscious and range of human emotion as she describes the unthinkable and the horrible. Racism and white privilege are brought out directly, and as a white reader, it’s on me to listen well, to note what builds the obsession with blue eyes in the face of indescribable pain and violation. I may read The Bluest Eye again sometime soon, I feel like I’ve missed so much even on a re-read.

As for ‘new’ books, I discovered Carol Joyce Oates with The Tattooed Girl. As my first foray into Oates’ world, I kick myself for not having started earlier. As I described to a friend, I feel as if Oates ‘gives without giving a fuck’. Her writing is unapologetic and stark, and she is deft at describing the tension in a scene, picking at the treads that connect her characters together and showing us how they fray. I ate that book, so to speak, in that I can’t remember reading something so quickly since I was a teenager (who was hungry for a fantasy series), enjoying the rush as I fell to sympathy for characters I knew I shouldn’t and while being made aware that’s exactly what Oates wanted me to do. However, The Tattooed Girl is unique for this month, in that my other two books, The Victorian City and Anna Karenina, were books that were started months back, and required a great effort and a deployment of ‘plodding along’ in terms of reading. The Victorian City took so long to finish in its entirety because of its ease of access as a nonfiction book. Judith Flanders planned her study of Victorian London with great care and mastery, fully aware that readers would be both researchers and a mix of the curious. Each topic is dealt with in singularity, meaning that the chapter before or after doesn’t need to be consulted, and initally, I only read two or three parts for a writing project. As a whole book though, it weaves together an essence of the era that British public consciousness still aspires to study and capture today.

As for Anna Karenina, it’s been one hell of a journey. I started that book months ago in October/November of last year, and it had become almost a permanent fixture on my desk until now. It had started out as one of those ‘must-read’ kind of books- the marathon classic you brag about finish reading. But genuinely, I enjoyed it. Tolstoy has a light touch to his words that lift you even through the swathes of politics that could pull you down into boredom, tinting the high society that his character’s flit through in the same shades. I’ll admit, I cared little for the centre-staged romance of Anna and Vronsky until the end, where Anna’s misery infected my fear and drew me to her. It embarrasses me to say that almost all of my sympathies ended up calling arms to Levin. There was something about his constant nervousness of and for life (of which I can relate in feeling) that became endearing, even where his temper and pretentious considerations for peasants were distasteful. His peace at the end is a fitting lock on a book whose title and central love story lock horns with stability and solidarity of marriage and family, the latter which is everything Levin aspires to represent.

But aside from what I think of Tolstoy’s epic, what’s become important to me is how there’s a sense that I’ll miss that book now I’ve finished it at long last. When something sticks with you for long enough, it’s inevitable. I dipped into that book sporadically over the months, but remained faithful to reading it. My memories include of where I read the book, as well as the book itself: hunched over the bathtub rim at four the morning in the middle of an insomnia-ridden episode, beside the old heater whilst waiting for my current sewing project to dry, or even on the floor of my bedroom after being bored by cleaning. Slowly turning pages, and feeling the weight of the book slowly shift from the left hand to the right. That sense of connection has become infectious to me, and now I think as I embark seriously on learning how to read and love books again, it might have to be a thing of mine to always have a big book on the go in the background- ready to take me back into its world whenever I need it.

Anyway- onward to next month’s reading!