Frenchman’s Creek–Daphne de Maurier

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This is my mother-in-law’s favorite book and she recommended it to me after I said that I had read and (mostly) enjoyed Rebecca. This is a very different book than Rebecca, which I think is something that should be said because I suspect that, like me, most people only know de Maurier from Rebecca.

As for which of these books are most representative of her canon, I do not know. The tone is the same in both, a stately and intense sense of repressed emotion. It is the subject that is the biggest difference.

In Rebecca, as you know if you’ve read it (or my earlier review of it) there is less romance than there is the ominous foreboding and mysterious ambiance that evokes something like Jane Eyre. In Frenchman’s Creek, it is a romance, almost completely uncluttered with other emotional elements.

In this book, Dona is a pampered rich aristocrat who takes her two very young children and flees London for her husband’s country estate on the coast. She is leaving because she has become bored with herself and her antics and disappointed with the choices she’s been making in her life.

Once there, she hears from the local gentry that there is a pirate that has been plaguing the coast. One night, she follows her servant into the woods and discovers the pirate’s boat. He finds her and thus begins a romance.

By the end of the book, they have engaged in active piracy together, a real plan has been formed and executed to capture the pirate and people have died terribly. She maintains the elegance of style throughout. The Gothic feel is pervasive.

It is a lovely book, and a sweet romance with more redeeming character and literary value than you normally see in romance novels.

 

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Rebecca–Daphne de Maurier

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This is one of those classics that I should have read sooner but didn’t. Such is life.

It’s a beautiful, elegant book. I’m going to watch the movie at some point as well.

Basically, it follows the path of a young girl as she meets a rich widower and marries him. All seems well until they go back to his home, Manderley. Manderley is an elegant, old estate, and the new bride (who never gets a name) feels ill-equipped to handle it. Added to her issues is the fact that her housekeeper, an imposing woman named Mrs. Danvers, is still devoted to the first wife, Rebecca.

She soon discovers that the shadow of Rebecca is hanging over everything she ever does. Her bedroom is newly renovated because the rooms used by Rebecca and her husband are shut off, kept exactly as they were when Rebecca died.

All the friends and neighbors she meet talk about how wonderful and vivacious Rebecca was, how beautiful she was and how memorable her parties. On a walk with her husband, the dog wanders to a hidden cove with a small cottage, but her husband won’t go there and bans her from going back there.

She tries her hardest to be as good as Rebecca, as lovely and as popular, but in that she is thwarted by Mrs. Danvers who does her best to make her feel inferior and sabotages her efforts at every turn.

As the situation progresses, it starts to seem like not only was Rebecca not the saint she appeared to be, but that there is some deep dark secret that is associated with her death. Her husband, who has been withdrawn and uncommunicative since they got back home after their honeymoon, eventually tells the truth to his new wife and from there everything goes to hell.

It’s a tragic, sad story, but it is beautifully written and conveys an almost gothic atmosphere that you hardly ever see done (or at least, hardly ever seen done well) lately. It’s not a long book, and it’s a classic, and I definitely recommend it.

Side note: if you read the Jasper Fforde “Eyre Affair” series you’ll find that Mrs. Danvers is a recurring character that causes havoc for the main character. That was my first introduction to Mrs. Danvers and the entire conceit is far more amusing having actually read Rebecca.

 

 

Cry, The Beloved Country–Alan Paton

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This was an incredibly sad book, but I suppose that’s only to be expected. This came from my list of classic books that I’ve never read.

It’s set in South Africa, sometime after 1900 but before apartheid became law in the mid 1940s. The author ran a reform school that was based in a former prison, the same one Ghandi had been imprisoned in, in fact. He wrote the book while on a tour of prisons in Europe and America and his love for his country is palpable in the book. The landscape itself is almost a character in the novel.

The book itself is divided into three sections. In the first, you follow the adventures of Stephen Kumalo, a rural priest who gets a letter from a priest in Johannesburg telling him his sister is sick and he must come get her. Johannesburg is like a black hole in this book–people go there and never come back. His brother-in-law went there for her job and never came back, which is why the sister took her small child there, to try to find him. She never came back. Also lost in Johannesburg is Kumalo’s brother and son.

When he gets to Johannesburg, he discovers that his sister isn’t actually sick. She’s working as a prostitute, and he gets her and her son out of her life and then goes looking for the rest of his family. His brother is a political activist about the treatment of native Africans in the city. His son is almost impossible to find, but eventually they do, he’s working and on probation from a reform school and planning to marry his pregnant girlfriend. Unfortunately, he’s not actually AT his job. The police find him before his father does, because he was involved in a robbery that ended in a murder.

The second part of the book follows the father of the murdered man and the trial of Kumalo’s son.

The third covers Kumalo’s life back home, after the trial, and the relationship he and his village develop with the father of the murdered man, who also lives locally.

This is a beautiful book, elegantly written with vibrant characters and a deeply affecting plot.

 

Things Fall Apart–Chinua Achebe

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This is a beautiful book. It’s considered a classic and for good reason. It’s also a very sad book, as indeed most classics seem to be.

Considered the best example of modern African narrative, this story follows Okonkwo, a leader in his village, at the time of colonization in Africa.

The colonists and the missionaries do not come out of this well, which is not a huge surprise.

Regardless, this story is aptly named. Things really do fall apart for Okonkwo. He’s a fierce man, trying to overcome the issues and memory of his weak father. To this end, he sometimes makes bad decisions in the name of being tough. For example, at some point his village takes a young boy hostage and the boy lives with him for three years and thinks of him as his own father. And then, counter to the advice of the village elder, he participates in the boy’s execution.

Then during a funeral his gun explodes (unreliable firearms are a feature of the time) and accidentally kills someone. Per the rules of his village, he’s banished for seven years. So he goes to his mother’s village and during this time the missionaries come.

His son joins the missionaries and moves away, which creates yet more resentment in his heart against the missionaries. And the stories of the new colonial government are distressing to all the villagers.

When he gets back to his own village, things get worse. One of the Christians unmasks the sacred dancers representing the gods, which is a big no-no. The village leaders, including Okonkwo, retaliate by burning the church to the ground.

The colonial government calls the village leaders in for a “discussion” which turns out to be a trial, and the leaders are kept in humiliating and terrible conditions. This does not improve the quality of the situation when they return to the village.

There’s plans for war, but when the messengers from the government come to see what’s happening, his village settles down. In frustration he kills one of the messengers. The penalty for this is death, as he well knows, so to prevent having to be shamed by the colonial government, he hangs himself.

It’s all incredibly tragic and sad. But it’s beautiful, beautifully written and executed.