The House on the Strand – Daphne du Maurier

I picked out The House on the Strand because I wanted to participate in the Daphne du Maurier reading week hosted by Ali in May, but for various reasons could not post this review in time. However, I was glad to have read this book, since it turned out to be quite excellent.

The House on the Strand is an excellent, engrossing story of a man literally caught between two worlds, where du Maurier deftly weaves in elements of time travel and horror to offer a fascinating glimpse into the psyche of the central character.

When the book opens Richard (Dick) Young, our narrator, is at a crossroads in his life. He is on a sabbatical, having left a plum publishing in London, possibly suffering from burnout. For rest and relaxation, he is spending the summer at a country home called Kilmarth that belongs to his good friend, the charismatic Magnus. Magnus is now a successful scientist, and the two strike up an agreement. Dick can spend the holidays at the house with his family – Vita, his American wife and his stepsons – who are scheduled to join him later. In return, Dick has to agree to become a test subject for a new psychedelic drug that is the focus of Magnus’ research.

The drug will transport Dick back in time, in this case the fourteenth century, but merely as an observer, and he will not be able to participate in the actual events that unfold there. Magnus also warns him of the side effects that are likely to occur the moment Dick is violently brought back to the present – nausea, dizziness, trembling and so on.

As Dick, highly influenced by the more strong willed Magnus, starts consuming the drug, his trips to the past, to the 14th century begin to take on a vivid, mesmeric quality.

The first thing I noticed was the clarity of the air, and then the sharp green colour of the land. There was no softness anywhere. The distant hills did not blend into the sky but stood out like rocks, so close that I could almost touch them, their proximity giving me that shock of surprise and wonder which a child feels looking for the first time through a telescope. Nearer to me, too, each object had the same hard quality, the very grass turning to single blades, springing from a younger, harsher soil than the soil I knew.

I had expected – if I had expected anything – a transformation of another kind: a tranquil sense of wellbeing, the blurred intoxication of a dream, with everything about me misty, ill defined; not this tremendous impact, a reality more vivid than anything hitherto experienced, sleeping or awake.

Dick is entranced by that era, it’s depiction of courtly intrigues, murder, infidelity, and particularly danger to a beautiful noblewoman by the name of Isolda Carminowe with whom Dick is besotted.

Dick’s primary guide in this era, if you will, is a steward called Roger who acts as a liaison between various family members, who although closely related, are at odds with one another. Isolda Carminowe, in particular, married to Oliver Carminowe, is engaged in a secret affair with Otto Bodrugan. The latter is also married with a son, and had rebelled to overthrow the King in a failed attempt. These aspects begin to take a fast hold on our narrator.

Slowly but surely, that 14th century sphere, with its people and landscapes, starts to thrill Dick to the point of addiction.

This, I think, was the essence of what it meant to me. To be bound, yet free; to be alone, yet in their company; to be born in my own time yet living, unknown, in theirs.

When Vita and the boys surprise him by landing at the house a few days earlier than expected, all of Dick’s best laid plans of experimenting with the drug go awry. While he mechanically performs his duties of a father and husband, arranging activities for his family to enjoy, it’s clear he is increasingly fraught with anxiety and that his mind is elsewhere.

Vita senses this, and her perceptive questioning slowly begins to drive Dick up the wall. Despite the difficulty of being by himself, Dick does manage to find some opportunities to experiment secretly. But the growing frequency with which he does so complicates matters and Dick’s behaviour becomes increasingly erratic. In his confused state of mind, the two worlds begin to merge. This both alarms Vita and alienates Dick driving a further wedge into their marriage.

When Magnus conveys his desire to come and spend the weekend with them, the stage is set for an unforeseen, dramatic and horrific chain of events.

One of the remarkable aspects of the novel is du Maurier’s evocation of landscapes in both the time periods. Across six centuries, the landscape has, of course, irrevocably altered, and yet its core essence has endured. For instance, where there are rows of houses along the sea now, they did not exist then because it was all a body of water all those years ago, and this has been brilliantly portrayed by the author.

The other fascinating point is the concept of time travel. Du Maurier has cleverly employed this trick…it’s not the time travel aspect in itself that interests her, but what it signifies – an escape from the present reality of stasis, uncertainty, and bitterness.

Magnus is in the throes of a mid-life crisis, filled with existential angst. Vita’s brother Joe has offered him a job in his publishing firm in New York, which Vita encourages him to accept given that he has a family to support, but Dick remains vary of the sameness of the new job, and the prospect of starting afresh in a completely new country fails to entice him.

As he keeps postponing his intentions of making that critical decision, the lure of the psychedelic drug and its escape to another realm, a much simpler one as perceived by him, intoxicates Dick pulling him deeper into an abyss.

“The world we carry inside us produces answers, sometimes. A way of escape. A flight from reality. You didn’t want to live either in London or in New York. The fourteenth century made an exciting antidote to both.”

I’ll admit though that while the 14th century was a source of constant fascination for Dick, I found those sections to be the least interesting in the book. Somehow, the people seemed one-dimensional, which could possibly be attributed to the fact that Dick was just a casual observer there and could not really interact with those characters nor could they perceive his presence.

To me the present, modern day world of Dick – his personal dilemma and his on-the-edge relationship with Vita – had much more depth and was therefore very satisfying and absorbing, notably for the way du Maurier has effectively created an atmosphere of chilling unease and creeping dread.

The House on the Strand, then, is a wonderful heady concoction of history, horror and time travel highlighting to greater effect du Maurier’s excellent storytelling skills. Sometimes the past comes back to haunt us in the present, but for Dick, the consequences might just prove deadlier, paving the way for his downfall.

Tentacle – Rita Indiana (tr. Achy Obejas)

A quick glance at author Rita Indiana’s profile shows that she is a Dominican music composer, producer and key figure in contemporary Caribbean literature. It also tells us that her novel Tentacle has already won a prestigious prize.

Now translated into English by Achy Obejas and published by the wonderful And Other Stories (through whom I discovered one of my favourite authors Deborah Levy), both the cover and the blurb were enticing enough to catch my eye. Well then, what about the content within the pages?

It was excellent.

Here’s why…

Tentacle

When the book opens we are in the future in 2027 in Santo Domingo the Dominican Republic. Acilde, the central character in the book, is working as a maid in Esther Escudero’s house.

It soon becomes apparent that we are in some kind of post-apocalyptic world with an environmental disaster having occurred much earlier. A virus has plagued the other part of the island, and Esther’s house has a mechanism by which anyone infected by the virus can be detected and shot down.

Recognizing the virus in the black man, the security mechanism in the tower releases a lethal gas and simultaneously informs the neighbors, who will avoid the building’s entrance until the automatic collectors patrolling the streets and avenues pick up the body and disintegrate it.

Acilde, meanwhile, was not always a maid. She was a prostitute at the El Mirador with a body like that of a fifteen year old boy. That’s how she meets Eric – Esther’s right hand man.

Eric convinces Acilde to work in Esther’s house as a maid in return for which she will get the opportunity to attend culinary school.

But Acilde has a greater desire – to transition into a man. At first she discovers a valuable sea anemone in one of Esther’s rooms (valuable because all other marine creatures have been destroyed in an environmental catastrophe). Her initial plan – to steal and sell the anemone, the proceeds of which she would use to buy Rainbow Brite. This is a drug that allows sex change without surgery.

But she changes her mind. Subsequent events compel Acilde to flee Esther’s although Eric later secures the Rainbow Brite and helps Acilde in her transformation into a man.

All of this pretty much takes place in the first chapter.

In the alternating chapter, the first of which is deliciously titled ‘Psychic Goya’, the focus shifts to Argenis, a budding artist, who soon realizes that the classic art school in which he studied has not much use when it comes to contemporary art.

At the School of Fine Arts, a public institution with a budget even smaller than the local barbershop’s, the professors – for whom there was no art after Picasso – were proud of Argenis’ technical expertise and Catholic themes and predicted a successful and prosperous future for him.

But when he finished at the School of Fine Arts and got his father to send him to the School of Design at Altos de Chavon, it was a different story. His fluency with perspective and proportion wasn’t worth a dime. His classmates were rich kids with Macs and digital cameras who talked about Fluxus, video art, video action, and contemporary art.

Down on luck, and fired from his job (communicating tarot readings over the telephone), Argenis is recruited by Giorgio Menicucci and his wife Linda for their Sosua project to raise funds and repopulate the sea with marine life.

Argenis, meanwhile, is the archetypal misogynist with dreams of sleeping with Linda, not to mention harbouring thoughts bordering on racism.

On an expedition, Argenis gets stung by a sea anemone. This leads to a situation where he is leading two lives – one in Giorgio’s house as part of the group of other artists also enlisted for the project, and the other way back in the 1600s as part of a band of buccaneers skinning hides.

The stories of Acilde and Argenis alternate between chapters and then the two very cleverly merge.

Acilde, now a man, is also leading several lives, all part of the grand plan to rebuild marine life and save the environment. But while, Acilde is able to effortlessly move between his various selves, Argenis is driven mad by them.

All these ingredients make Tentacle a very potent read. The book is just 130 pages, but it’s a hybrid of time travel, art, sex and politics all which Rita Indiana seamlessly and with great imagination mixes together to create a heady brew.

The obvious themes are the fluidity of gender, and the impact of environmental disasters. But Indiana also manages to throw in others such as the place of art in the world and the perception of contemporary art.

Despite the strangeness of the overall tale, within its confines, the story has a rationality and lucidity that is unmistakable.  Moreover, Indiana’s prose is vibrant with enough chutzpah to drive the narrative forward.

Overall, this was a wonderful read and one that is a strong contender for my Best of the Year list.