The House on the Strand by Daphne du Maurier
Published by Virago, 2003 (first published in 1969)
My rating: ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐
It’s such a nice feeling to return to a favourite author after a while, and to instantly be reminded why you fell in love with their work in the first place. From the very first paragraph of this book, I was transported once again by du Maurier’s lush, descriptive prose. It captures such a wonderful sense of time, place, and atmosphere, and is just a delight to read.
Initially, the story feels like a radical departure for du Maurier, given that this is ostensibly a book about time travel. And whilst it does stand out as unique amongst her work for that reason, rest assured that the hallmarks of her style (grand settings, gothic undertones, interesting characters, a touch of the sinister, and an air of mystery) are all still present. It’s also worth pointing out that her take on the time travel trope is fascinating and wholly unique in its own right.
Magnus Lane is a chemical researcher. On the quiet, he has been experimenting with a strange potion that seems to send the drinker’s mind back to the 14th century. Able to act only as a silent observer, however, the person’s body is left behind, the two moving in tandem across the span of time. It seems Lane has cracked the secret to moving between parallel timelines. And so, he enlists his long-time friend, Richard, to serve as a guinea pig. But as Richard gets increasingly involved in the lives of those he observes in the past, and addicted to the high of the potion itself, the line between the two times begins to blur, leading to potentially devastating consequences.
The thing I enjoyed most about this was how successfully it draws parallels with the struggles of addiction. Richard becomes more and more dependant on the potion, despite the obvious danger involved, and the increasingly debilitating physical and mental side effects. With each exposure, the dose required is higher, and though he promises each time will be his last, he is repeatedly drawn back in, no matter the trouble it causes him or those around him. This was cleverly done, and very effective.
There is also some commentary on the risks of trying to live a double life. Unhappy in his marriage, the trips into the past serve as a form of escape for Richard, who becomes emotionally attached to the people he observes, particularly the beautiful Isolda. The more he is drawn into the high-stakes drama of the 14th century, however, the duller his own life seems. His wife, Vita, suspects these absences are a sign of infidelity. With Richard finding it increasingly difficult to keep the two halves of his existence apart, the pressure begins to take its toll on both his body and mind.
I will say, since Richard is unable to directly interact with those in the past, there is an inherent sense of detachment where those characters are concerned. As such, it did take me a while to get to grips with who everyone was, and to feel any kind of investment in them. Though these sections are evocative, I was always far more interested in Richard’s struggles, and his attempts to deal with the fallout of the experiments back in the present day.
That said, the book was still a damn good romp throughout, with some skilfully implemented allegory. I mustn’t leave it so long until I pick up another du Maurier.
You can pick up a copy of The House on the Strand from Book Depository by clicking here. If you’ve already read it, I’d love to hear your thoughts!