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du Maurier's last bestselling novel is set in the familiar surroundings of Cornwall, narrated by a young man, Philip Ashley. Philip has been raised by his cousin Ambrose in his large estate which houses only men. This deliberate exclusion, almost distaste of women, makes it surprising to discover that having travelled to Italy for the sake of his health, Ambrose has met and married their cousin Rachel. The bliss of married life does not last long however and soon Philip receives disturbing letters indicating Ambrose's distress and hinting at his suspicions of his new wife. Philip's rushed journey to be re-united with him proves fruitless and he returns to Cornwall bitterly despising Rachel who he suspects of playing a part in his cousin's demise.
When Rachel arrives, uninvited, in Cornwall he intends to treat her with nothing but hostility. He soon falls for her charms however, and his resolve melts with every passing day. Thus ensues an intriguing tale whereby Philip is constantly thrown around by doubt and determination, alienating those around him as his affection and blind-sightedness grows. Rachel remains an enigma to him and even once events have drawn to their conclusion he admits '...every day, haunted still by doubt, I ask myself a question which I cannot answer. Was Rachel innocent or guilty?'
The reader is often led into confusion with our unreliable narrator and his ever changing assumptions. Indeed, there is little to be trusted throughout - Ambrose's letters could have been the result of a fractured mind, his brain tumour making him lose his grip on reality (if we are indeed to believe he was afflicted in this way). Rachel, who seems so calm for the most part, does occasionally let her mask slip, and her defence is natural to one attempting to cover a misdemeanour. As we are only ever able to see her through Philip's eyes we are given merely a refracted view - how are we to judge her without bias? Similarly Philip's jealousy of, and hostility to, her confidante Rainaldi can colour the reader's view. How are we to know who to trust? Paranoia and mental instability run in the Ashley family and the strange misogynistic upbringing Philip experienced with Ambrose, whose remarkable similarity is commented on many times throughout, is bound to have impacted on his view of the world and the drama in which he suddenly finds himself embroiled.
This cast of characters lead the reader along a winding path with no clear-cut end. Forming your allegiances early may be the only way to have some sense of closure, following our narrator's lead and making of the story what you want. It is a delightfully ambiguous plot with du Maurier's characteristic skill at storytelling and creating intense atmosphere making this an enjoyable read.
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