British man Dick Young has quit his job in publishing to spend the summer rent free in his college friend Magnus’s house in Cornwall. Magnus is a biophysicist working in London who has convinced Dick to help him with a side project: test out a drug Magnus has developed that allows the user to go back in time. Not just any time, for a reason unknown thus far to Magnus, but to the 14th century and the life of Roger, a steward in Cornwall. The rules are don’t touch anything in the past, lest you risk becoming violently ill and ripped back to the present. We learn that the user also walks around as he does in the past, so beware modern problems, like moving vehicles and confused neighbors who are out and about. Although Magnus warns Dick it’s easy to become addicted to the experimental time-travel drug, Dick decides he must hurry up and use it more because his American wife will soon arrive with his step-sons.
Much like, well, almost every book with two time periods, I liked one more than the other. Dick’s banter with Magnus and his spats with his wife are comical, though you wouldn’t think it from the seriousness behind people’s words. It’s simply the way du Maurier writes that’s so sharp. The American wife wants Dick to get a job, any job, and will support him, though her preference is he choose a choice publishing career being handed to Dick by her friend in the U.S. But the more Dick travels to the past and becomes attached to the folks he meets while following Roger, the more annoying he finds his wife.
But Daphne du Maurier’s wit shines through and Dick and his wife’s interactions. Understanding human behavior, the wife gently manipulates situations in her favor, while Dick responds cuttingly. I was reminded of Maxim de Winter meets Mary Yellen, characters from two of du Maurier’s works published over thirty years before. Cutting, biting, honest, the result read like a fencing bout of words.
In contrast, I didn’t see the appeal in the 14th-century timeline, which focuses on a woman who cheats on her husband, a husband who then has her lover quietly killed. Surrounding that drama are questions of allegiance to the King and a whole cast of unnecessary characters I couldn’t keep straight, largely because they’re all dumped into the text in chapter three, and the names are no more clear that those of characters in Wuthering Heights.
Overall, I didn’t love The House on the Strand and would recommend du Maurier’s other novels, depending on what you enjoy: horror, thriller, Gothic romance-mystery. The most enjoyable part about reading The House on the Strand was my conversation with my reading buddy Lou @ Lou Lou Reads. Lou is a delightful, keen reader from England who has also read other du Maurier novels. If you were thinking about picking up The House on the Strand because it has a historical fiction aspect, Lou recommends Frenchman’s Creek instead, which she says handles the history and names better.
In our discussion, we compared the way Americans feel about homes and history vs. Brits. In The House on the Strand, Magnus’s house is important to Dick. It’s the place they spent time when college was on break. It’s an old house, and Dick values the history of it in addition to the memories created there. Dick’s wife, however, is American. For those of us from the U.S., anything over one-hundred years old is really old (!!!). It’s not uncommon, Lou said, to see a plaque commemorating sites from the 1300s near her hometown in the U.K. Thus, Dick’s wife’s dismissal of Magnus’s house, and seemingly Cornwall itself, seems tacky, new, rootless. But she’s not tacky, just of a different culture.
Lou also agreed with me that the characters in the 14th-century timeline were confusing. Not only are there too many characters in general, but those with the same name, too. But even more confounding are all the manor names. The various homes — all named; so weird to an American like me — all begin with “T.” For instance, the village is Tywardreath, which translates to “The house on the strand” (I’m not sure why one village gets translated to “house,” but there you have it). Dick notes how the “T” names are confusing to him, too, which made me feel better. And I learned something from Lou: that Cornwall has it’s own language, Cornish, which has had a revival in recent years.
Lastly, we discussed how The House on the Strand is a book that reflects the time in which it was written and published: the 1960s psychedelic drug days/daze. Magnus’s experimental drug causes hallucinations, and it’s implied that the user isn’t actually time travelling, but connecting brain waves with the deceased. Yet, this never feels like a “drug novel” of the 60s, either, simply a quiet response to the culture.