Wednesday, December 7, 2016

Book Review - Daphne Du Maurier's Don't Look Now

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

John and Laura have gone to Venice in the hopes of putting the past behind them by revisiting places they loved when they were whole. They haven't been whole for awhile. They have been drifting apart, trapped in depression since the death of their daughter Christine due to meningitis. Venice is supposed to reinvigorate them. Instead what starts as a pleasant trip soon turns incomprehensible. One day they see elderly twin sisters in a restaurant. Laura runs into them in the restroom and discovers that one of the sisters is blind and claims to be a psychic. She tells Laura that she sees Christine there with her and her husband and that she is happy. When Laura tells John this story he claims they are nothing more than charlatans and goes out of his way to avoid them. Yet fate has other plans. That night after getting lost in the labyrinth of Venice they again meet the sisters in a restaurant and the sisters are very enthusiastic to meet Laura again.

John, in his cynicism, thinks it's the sisters sinking their claws into Laura, while Laura insists it's because the sisters have a message for John from Christine; he is to leave Venice at once because he is in danger. John scoffs at this but when they get back to their hotel there's a message that their son Johnnie, who is away at boarding school, is sick with appendicitis and Laura thinks this is the reason that Christine wanted them to leave. Laura is able to get an early flight out but John has to wait. When the plane was supposed to be in the air he sees his wife and the sisters on the grand canal. Thinking there must have been a mix up or the sisters are up to something he spends the day trying to find his wife and the sisters. But perhaps he should have paid more attention to Christine's warning and the sister's insight that John himself has the power of psychic understanding.

"Don't Look Now" is an odd little story, perhaps best remembered by the movie with the same name. The problem I faced with this story is that we are given this glimpse into the marriage of John and Laura but it's as if we are looking through glass from the famous Murano workshops. There's this weird distance that stops us from forming any real connection with the couple. This entire story is written in such a way that the reader always feels like an outsider. It's not just the lack of connection with John and Laura but "Don't Look Now" was written with an insider's knowledge of Venice. Of course during the time period Du Maurier wrote this story her readers would have been more familiar with Venice as it was a common tourist destination but that doesn't help me. I've sadly never been to Venice so the way John rattles off locales makes me think he's smug and is just another way I am excluded from becoming a part of the story. But then again, John is kind of an idiot. His ham-handed approach to finding his wife to his complete unwillingness to actually listen to the sisters means he gets what's coming to him. As for the supernatural of it all? Du Maurier has done better, but that ending. It is a shocker. Mostly because it was so vaguely foreshadowed.

But 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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