Wednesday, December 14, 2016

Book Review - Daphne Du Maurier's The Birds

Don't Look Now by Daphne Du Maurier
Published by: NYRB Classics
Publication Date: October 28th, 2008
Format: Paperback, 368 Pages
Rating: ★★★
To Buy

On December the 3rd life changed forever for Nat Hocken and his family. The day before was like any other, he worked at the farm and ate his lunch on the cliffs overlooking the channel. But the birds seemed agitated. That night, the wind came in from the East and turned fall into winter in Cornwall. While he slept soundly next to his wife he was awoken by a tapping on the glass. Upon opening the window a bird attacked him and flew off. This happened once more, though his wife insisted in her groggy state that it was a dream. But once the children were attacked in the room across the hall his wife became scared as well. Nat spent the night fighting the birds off to find fifty little corpses on the floor of his children's bedroom by morning. The day after the night attack they tried to resume life as normal. After walking his daughter Jill to the school bus stop he decided to stop in at the farm to see if this was a unique occurrence to his family. Up at the farm they had heard nothing, but on his way back to his family the home service announced that birds were massing all over the country. Nat went home and prepared his house for the coming attack which he could feel coming deep in his bones. They survived that second night, those at the farm weren't so lucky. But how long can his family survive with their supplies ever dwindling and the birds become ever more fierce and silent?

There are many ways to interpret "The Birds." You can read that the East wind is the tide of Communism, a threat that could arrive at any moment, which was what Du Maurier intended seeing as this was written at the height of the Cold War. I, like Patrick McGrath who selected the stories for this book, found "The Birds" post apocalyptic setting more compelling. Yes, the story IS more Russian scare than world destroying plague, but this 1952 story could be seen as a prototype for what was to come in literature and television. Walking Dead anyone? Yet this is a far more languid way to tell a story that is about "the end." It's peaceful and quiet. The Hocken family trying to withstand an unknown force on limited rations in a desolate landscape sounds just like the best in horror films, but this would be of far more artistic fare, where the lighting of Nat's cigarette signals giving in to the inevitable.

The scope of this story is what I find most compelling. Knowing that this was the impetus for an Alfred Hitchcock classic I had assumptions as to what this story would be. Assumptions that I should have second guessed knowing Du Maurier's dislike of the adaptation. This shows horror on a very intimate and knowable scale with a single family facing off against the mundane omnipresent birds. Could we die because of something we took for granted as being peaceful turning against us? Could the known become unknown? You can see why this story still appeals to readers today, fear of the unknown, and attack by the previously known will always be a real threat, be it the reanimated corpses of loved ones as zombies or birds. Yet here it boils down to the fatalism in that last ambiguously bleak cigarette.

If you've only read Daphne Du Maurier's novels you truly haven't experienced her range as an author. Yes, her novels are some of the best and most beautifully written and suspenseful books you'll ever read from Rebecca to Jamaica Inn to The Scapegoat, but they often cover the same ground and don't even touch on the supernatural and strange that her short stories, such as "Don't Look Now" and "The Birds" delve into. It's like Du Maurier felt a freedom in this shorter format that let her handle the outre, the other, and the persecuted that will surprise you in their range and occasional depravity. Each story is easily worthy of Rod Serling and The Twilight Zone with a supernatural agency at work in the everyday lives of our heroes and heroines that is never quite fully explained. In "Blue Lenses" Mrs. Marda West has ocular surgery with special lenses inserted to regain her sight only to open her eyes and see that everyone has an animal's head. At first she thinks it's a joke being perpetrated on her but soon comes to realize that these visions are giving her insight into the true nature of people. People whom she trusted are animals of dubious nature and ill repute.

"The Blue Lenses," besides showing this "otherness," showcases an ongoing theme in these shorter works. Du Maurier's protagonists often think that they are the object of a joke being played at their expense. They are the victim of a con and the proper authorities are often viewed as conspiring against them. From "Split Second" to "La Sainte-Vierge" to "Don't Look Now" to the aforementioned "Blue Lenses" delusion and trickery are what everything hinges on. But this paranoia that has these people confused by what they see, hoping they are mistaken, actually shines a light on Du Maurier's true interest, plumbing the depths of humanity. The fact that these characters are so willing to believe that someone would go to the trouble of conning them shows a fear of the "other," a fear of what people are capable of. Because looking deeper, past the supernatural trappings, at the root these stories show that people are capable of murder.

In fact sometimes Du Maurier forgoes the supernatural entirely and tells a tale that is, in the end, just about murder. In fact my favorite story, "Kiss Me Again Stranger," is about a troubled girl who kills RAF men she meets. Of course it wouldn't be a true Du Maurier story if you weren't bamboozled into thinking it was a love story until the very last page, but again and again that is why these stories work, she is continually subverting your expectations. Yes you could boil this all down to man versus nature, be it's man's inner nature or actual nature or something against nature, but trying to condense it down does an injustice to the writing. Du Maurier through stories about killer birds, "The Birds," and killer usherettes, "Kiss Me Again Stranger," and women joining mountain cults that may be leper colonies, "Monte Verità," touches on so many truths and so many weighty topics that you can see why she was always miffed that people called her a "romance" author. She is so much more. If you don't believe, just pick up this book. I think it will change your mind.


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