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.
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.