Don’t Look Now by Daphne du Maurier

What better time for a spooky read than Halloween season? I had never read any Daphne du Maurier before but everything I had heard of her –her Gothic imagination and her taste for the supernatural, ensured that she would be perfect for this time of year. I bypassed the obvious Rebecca in favor of a collection of du Maurier’s short stories entitled Don’t Look Now.

Don’t Look Now was published by The New York Review of Books and the stories within curated by Patrick McGrath. Kudos to McGrath on a job well done in selecting these stories! They have a unified theme yet are varied enough so as not to feel dull. McGrath’s choices also spanned more than thirty years of du Maurier’s writing career.

Also, just look at the creepy cover of this book! You’d be hard-pressed to find a more suitable book cover for Halloween!

Don't Look Now

I think I may have found myself a new favorite author. du Maurier lamented the fact that she was “dismissed with a sneer as a bestseller” during her lifetime. I can see where the critics were coming from: du Maurier was no literary stylist. Her prose can feel a little dated, a little fusty. But she was, above all, a superb, furious plotter. du Maurier is so thrilling I delayed my gym time by an hour because I just had to finish the title story “Don’t Look Now.” I was so absorbed in “Split Second” that when a friend kicked and kicked at a chair near me I paid no attention. He had to loom over the sofa in order for me to finally take notice.

The reason why du Maurier got me so hooked was her expertise in ratcheting up tension. Spooky supernatural premises aren’t enough for du Maurier. In “Don’t Look Now,” a wife and husband are divided over a psychic vision of their dead child. Hey, let’s up the stakes and put a murderer on the loose! In “Blue Lenses,” a woman gets her sight back… but it came back wrong. Nah, not enough! There’s also the threatening husband demanding co-directorship of her trust fund! In du Maurier’s world the stakes are high, the stories exciting, the pages keep turning.

I think a good way to describe du Maurier’s output is at the lower end of quality writing. My words sound derogatory but I mean them in the best way possible. Her plotting skills ensured her popularity. Yet the themes of her stories can merit analysis. du Maurier was clearly fascinated with the liminal space between the human world and psychic terrains. She was the type of writer who could be both commercially and critically acclaimed.

Reading these stories, I was also struck by how easily du Maurier could slip from a masculine to feminine voice. The difference between “Escort,” narrated by a naval captain, and “Split Second,” told from the point of view of a young upper-middle class widow is stark.

The variety of du Maurier’s diction was impressive, as well. The naval vocabulary in “Escort,” the mountaineering language in “Monte Verita”: a lot of research must have gone into these stories.

But you’ll never hear about the content of these stories if I keep singing du Maurier’s praises! Here, I’ll talk about some of my favorite stories:

The married couple in “Don’t Look Now” has recently lost their daughter to meningitis. Trying to soothe themselves through a vacation in Venice, they are instead confronted by a blind stranger with a vision of their daughter seated between them. The wife is a believer. The husband is skeptical. Thus ensues a series of coincidences, clairvoyance, and paranoia. A murderer is on the loose. And event upon event pile up towards the nail-biting climax.

In “The Birds,” famously made into a Hitchcock film, birds are inexplicably attacking humans. In the hands of a master storyteller, a premise that could have easily veered into silly, B-grade territory becomes utter terror. If you think birds are harmless, you’ll think twice after reading “The Birds.” du Maurier truly captured the helplessness we feel when our toys and technology are taken from us. The Air Force is ineffective, guns don’t work. It’s every man for himself as our narrator boards up his doors and windows, worries about what his family has left to eat. The build-up and atmosphere of this story is superb.

In “Split Second,” a young widow returns home to find strangers firmly entrenched in her house. Who are these people? Where are her family and friends? “Split Second” is a slow burn story. We spend fifty pages gradually piecing together what went wrong, even as the narrator remains clueless. The writing here is beautifully detailed. Not overwrought, not flowery. Perfectly detailed. It’s almost as though du Maurier knew how people would behave in such a situation. The disruption of the narrator’s world is handled with such empathy you can only feel sorry for her.

“Monte Verita” is the last and most opaque of du Maurier’s stories in Don’t Look Now. It lacks the concreteness of du Maurier’s other stories. At some point, I realized that du Maurier had a plot formula: an opening mystery, an added danger, and a closing twist. Not here. “Monte Verita” is more experimental and literary and deals with heavier themes, such as purity vs. sexuality, asceticism vs. worldliness, and religious worship.

In “Monte Verita,” the beguiling Anna joins a cult on top of the titular mountain whilst the two men who love her become more and more drawn to the mystery surrounding Monte Verita. Anna is irresistible to them, almost a femme fatale. Yet Anna is very much associated with purity. She wears no make-up, has a peaceful aura, and renounces material things. Her name, Anna, is simple and very bare bones. She is almost a Jesus figure towards the narrator, encouraging him to refuse luxury. Is “Monte Verita” an allegory for self-denial or romantic passion? You decide!

I can’t recommend du Maurier enough. This is page-turning reading at its best! If you prefer something more ambiguous and high literature, she may not be for you. But lovers of Gothic and Victorian literature will find a new favorite. I know I will be on the lookout for more du Maurier novels and short stories.

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On the Man Booker Prize

I hadn’t paid much attention neither to the 2014 Booker Prize longlist nor shortlist. I could have named some of the authors who were nominated, but I haven’t picked up any of the books.

This could soon change with yesterday’s announcement of the Booker 2014 winner.

http://www.theguardian.com/books/2014/oct/14/richard-flanagan-wins-man-booker-prize-2014

Reading the article linked above, I couldn’t help but have my interest piqued by The Narrow Road to the Deep North. I don’t recommend reading the guardian’s more detailed review of the novel as it gives a lot away but essentially, The Narrow Road to the Deep North tells the stories of prisoners of war forced to build the Burma railway by the Japanese during World War II. It’s a history previously unbeknownst to me. And as a Southeast Asian myself, I felt a magnetic pull to this novel. I will try to get my hands on a copy as soon as I can.

The novel’s author Richard Flanagan himself has personal investment in writing this story. His father was one of the prisoners of war who survived the campaign to build this railway. He died the day Flanagan completed The Narrow Road to the Deep North. I couldn’t help but think of how bittersweet this was, that his mortality meant that he could never read the final version of the novel but at the same time the novel would make his experiences immortal.

http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2014/oct/12/man-booker-prize-american-authors

In 2014, the Man Booker Prize broadened its scope to include any book written in English. This year, the shortlist nominees included three Brits, two Americans, and one Australian –that Aussie was Flanagan, incidentally.

I was happy that this rule change would make it a free-for-all competition (provided the textual language is English). The Booker Prize has had a wonderful reputation of bringing great post-colonial writing to the forefront of the literary world but up to now, its scope was limited only to the Commonwealth. I was hopeful that now, a rich tradition of writing will emerge from newer terrains via future Booker lists.

But in the second article linked above, Susanna Rustin talked of her fears that in the future the Booker prize would be dominated by Americans, that the “broadening of scope meant a narrowing of horizons.” I admit that it is true American publishing companies have an enormous amount of money and influence to put their novels through the door. These are resources that other countries’ publishing companies don’t have.

In the end, I’m still hopeful. Preliminary analyses don’t mean much, only the results. I actually look forward to seeing future Booker longlists now and to see which countries will supply the next nominated novels.

 

Starting a Very Japanese Literary Journey

I’m not sure how this started but I’ve found myself hoarding Japanese literature like there’s no tomorrow. Throughout my life, I’ve sporadically developed an interest in Japanese books. Yet funnily enough, the experiences I’d had with them should be deterring me from buying more books rather than redoubling my hunger for them.

Like most people, my gateway to Japanese literature was through Haruki Murakami. As a young high school student, I bought myself Murakami’s then-newest title, the short story collection Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman. I read about 100 pages before giving up. I found Murakami’s style too abnormal and fantastical to my taste. Also in high school, I read Snow Country by Yasunari Kawabata. The themes and story of the novella completely flew over my head. I just didn’t get it. During my first year in uni, I purchased a double book; The Key and Diary of a Mad Old Man by Junichiro Tanizaki. I thought they were okay and I liked the plot twists although I found the subject matter themselves quite twisted. And finally, a couple of years ago I read the short horror story collection Revenge by Yoko Ogawa. I thought it was okay too; I was expecting to be more spooked than I ended up being.

So why has this sudden obsession with hauling Japanese literature reared its head again?

The truth is I don’t know myself.

It could be a number of reasons. During my final quarter in uni, a creative writing class had me reading “The Elephant Vanishes” by Murakami. I thoroughly enjoyed it and I think “The Elephant Vanishes” was possibly the best gateway into Murakami’s magical realism. It had a touch of the fantastical but was still deeply rooted in reality, an excellent way of easing yourself into Murakami’s style. “The Elephant Vanishes” made me want to give Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman another shot. Maybe that’s it. Maybe “The Elephant Vanishes” whet my appetite for Japanese literature all over again.

There was also a now-aborted plan to go Japan for the Christmas holidays. I bought myself The Oxford Book of Japanese Short Stories edited by Theodore W. Goossen in anticipation of the trip. At the time, I wanted to learn all I could about the culture via their literature. Maybe despite the trip being a no-go now, that desire is still spurring me on.

But I’m always overanalyzing things. Maybe I’m just bored of British novels, those go-to literary comforts of mine. Maybe I just want something new. Something new to mirror this new phase in life where I’m out of uni and having to job-search and in general be an adult.

So without further ado, let us see what lovely books await me in this new odyssey:

  1. Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman by Haruki Murakami

I did say that “The Elephant Vanishes” made me want to give this book another chance. Before, I started reading without knowing anything about Murakami and what to expect from him. And I know that my literary tastes have changed and expanded over the years so I have feeling that I will enjoy Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman this time around.

  1. The Oxford Book of Japanese Short Stories edited by Theodore W. Goossen

At $19.95, this particular book was a bit pricy but it seems like a good overview of Japanese literature. Inside, it has short stories by big names such as Junichiro Tanizaki, Ryunosuke Akutagawa, Yasunari Kawabata, Kobo Abe, Yukio Mishima, Kenzaburo Oe, Haruki Murakami, and Banana Yoshimoto. Incidentally, the curated Murakami story in this anthology is “The Elephant Vanishes.”

  1. The Makioka Sisters by Junichiro Tanizaki

I’ve read The Key and Diary of a Mad Old Man by the same author. They were fine novellas but they were a bit unsatisfying. The Makioka Sisters promises to remedy that, since it’s a lengthy family saga. I love epics and family sagas, sign me up for anything resembling one!

  1. Out by Natsuo Kirino

Of all the Japanese books on this list, Out is the one book that I have actually read. It was the last book I read, really. I utterly enjoyed it. I loved the style, which I though was crisp and clean while being cold and clinical at the same time. It really fit the psychological thriller genre of the book although I am aware that some people would find the prose style stilted.

For a supposed thriller, Out isn’t exactly a page-turner. It took me a little more than two weeks to finish and I usually read fast. But that was because I wanted to enjoy every word. In no way was the book itself poorly-paced.

I was warned that the novel contained a gory dismemberment scene. Maybe I have a strong stomach for things like these but I didn’t find the scene as graphic as I thought I would. It was fine. The plot involves a murder and several women working together to cut up the body to keep the police off their trail so the dismemberment was by no means gratuitous.

Out is a will-they-get-caught? novel rather than a whodunit. It tries to be a whydunit as well although in the end it didn’t succeed in this area. I was still puzzled as to why Masako, the ringleader of the group, would agree to help with this entire scheme. I have a blurry idea but no definite answer.

Fair warning though. The ending was disturbing. It involves rape and torture. So if you don’t have the stomach for that stay far, far away. It certainly wasn’t the ending I had hoped for and the final scene left more questions than answers but overall, Out was probably my favorite experience in immersing into Japanese literature so far.

  1. Grotesque by Natsuo Kirino

I bought Grotesque together with Out. The truth is the synopsis of Grotesque intrigued me more than Out but I have a habit of reading the book I’m less interested in first. Delayed gratification, as it were. Grotesque promises to be an investigation of the adolescent female mind and the state of Japanese women in society, topics that greatly pique my interest.

  1. Spring Snow by Yukio Mishima

I just brought this book yesterday. The Kinokuniya where I lived was having a storewide sale and that’s always a good reason to hoard more books into my limited shelf space. I ended up buying this book because I was intrigued by the synopsis on the Vintage edition:

“Tokyo, 1912. The closed world of the ancient aristocracy is being breached for the first time by outsiders – rich provincial families, a new and powerful political and social elite.

Kiyoaki has been raised among the elegant Ayakura family – members of the waning aristocracy – but he is not one of them. Coming of age, he is caught up in the tensions between old and new, and confused by his feelings for the exquisite, spirited Satoko. When Satoko is engaged to a royal prince Kiyoaki realizes the magnitude of his passion.”

Promising, eh? A David Mitchell quote at the back says “An austere love story, probably my favorite of his novels.” I can’t resist a good love story although I can tell from the synopsis that this is the hallmark of a doomed romance.

So many lovely books I’ve got. Keep your eye out for reviews and such!