Book Review: Jamaica Inn by Daphne du Maurier

This was my second reading of Jamaica Inn. Regular readers may be under the impression that my reading is more extensive than intensive, but I have been known to revisit some books more than once and when it comes to having something to read on a wet and miserable day then this is one of the best choices you can make.

The story introduces us to Mary Yellan, a young woman in her early twenties who, having grown up on a farm working with just her mother, has her world collapse when her mother dies. Mary is forced to move to Cornwall to take up residence at Jamaica Inn, where her aunt Patience is the wife of the landlord, Joss Merlyn. Written with an atmospheric gloom, the novel’s opening is somewhat reminiscent of Dracula, only here the monsters are less fantastical. The company Mary’s uncle keeps are to few people’s liking. The inn is notorious as the home of some nefarious activities, the extent of which are revealed as the novel progresses. Mary’s courage to stand up to her uncle threaten to be her undoing, though she has some help in the form of her uncle’s brother, Jem the horse thief and also of a local vicar, who for some unknown reason is an albino. As the story unfolds, one of the key themes that emerges is that of trust. In spite of the adversarial relationship between Mary and Joss, he comes to trust Mary with some of his secrets, though his tongue is loosened by drink.

The second reading was, I must confess, not quite as good as the first. I think some of the problem stems from du Maurier’s portrayal of Mary, as I kept having to remind myself that she was in her twenties. So often, her speech and mannerisms come across as that of someone a good five years younger. The tremendous gothic atmosphere that du Maurier opens with is not sustained throughout the novel, though it does come back in flashes at moments of high tension, of which there are several. There is some very dark sexual innuendo in the book, which makes for some uncomfortable reading, but is not overt.

The character of Joss is almost comic in just how horrid he is. There are few redeeming features about him and he seems to be the embodiment of everything vile that any man can ever be. The more interesting characters then, are Jem Merlyn and the vicar of Alternun. Du Maurier brings great tension to her writing, though this is not always sustained. One can see how her style of writing appealed to Alfred Hitchcock, who directed The Birds, based on a short story by du Maurier.

In spite of some of the book’s weaknesses, I would not hesitate to recommend it. It’s a hugely entertaining story from a master storyteller.

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