Thursday, 12 June 2014

Review: 'The Birds and Other Stories' by Daphne du Maurier

The Birds: and Other StoriesDaphne du Maurier's stories, such as The Birds, Jamaica Inn and Rebecca, have all been immortalised on the silver screen by Hitchcock and yet I had, until today, never read any of her books or short story collections. The danger of books being adapted into films is that people tend to then not read the books, despite there always being differences, apart from the fact that reading something is wholly different from seeing something. It was with this in mind I picked up The Birds and Other Stories, to make up my own mind about du Maurier. And I'm definitely glad I did.

"Anyone starting this book under the impression that he may sleepily relax is in for a shock...continually provokes both pity and terror." --The Observer (UK) 
A classic of alienation and horror, The Birds was immortalised by Hitchcock in his celebrated film. The five other chilling stories in this collection echo a sense of dislocation and mock man's dominance over the natural world. The mountain paradise of 'Monte Verità' promises immortality, but at a terrible price; a neglected wife haunts her husband in the form of an apple tree; a professional photographer steps out from behind the camera and into his subject's life; a date with a cinema usherette leads to a walk in the cemetery; and a jealous father finds a remedy when three's a crowd . . .
I have to wholeheartedly agree with the reviewer from the Observer. These stories aren't cozy, there is something in each of them that makes them terrifying in their own right. This is largely due to the fact that du Maurier chooses human qualities to focus on. Take 'The Birds' as an example. Zooming in on the shock humans experience when they find themselves powerless against nature, she creates a claustrophobic environment for her characters from which she, ingeniously, doesn't show us any escape. Du Maurier knows how to end a story at the moment which will leave her readers with the most suspense. Rather than show a happy or dramatic ending, there are endless opportunities for the stories to end either way.

'The Birds' was changed drastically by Hitchcock. I would almost go as far as saying the only thing he kept that was true to the story was the fact of the birds. Du Maurier's story is much more rural, more personal, giving it an edge the film misses. It is a great story to start a short story collection of with. However, my favourite of the collection is quite likely the second story, 'Monte Veritá'. Where 'The Birds' works with a sense of realism, in 'Monte Veritá' du Maurier plays with mysticism and spiritualism, calling on everyone's suspicion of that which is just beyond our reach. Simultaneously, it has quite a strong moral which doesn't become clear until the end of the story. I'd hesitate to call 'The Apple Tree' a haunting story, due to it's lack of slamming doors and ghostly noises. Rather, it is a very interesting look into the main character's psyche, which naturally brings with it some twists. 'The Little Photographer' has a completely different tone to the other stories due to its luxurious setting and stark realities. It took me by surprise but it was fascinating. 'Kiss Me Again, Stranger' and 'The Old Man' were not as entrancing to me as the other four stories, although they are both good. The former's main character is interesting yet somehow not very relatable, whereas in 'The Old Man' du Maurier seems to try and find a balance between potential fairy tale and folk horror story, but doesn't quite find it.

I read this collection in a day, unable to stop reading any of the stories and finding myself unwilling to stop in between the stories. They are exciting in the way that suspense stories should be. Each story seems to be made up of twists and turns and when they don't come it's as exciting as when they do. Du Maurier's writing style is simple, in the best way. There is no Gothic tendency of over-emphasizing dark hallways and lurid shadows on the walls. Rather there is a lot of attention to details, such as the restlessness brought on by the incessant noise of flapping wings or the boredom of routine. The stories are easy to read and would be enjoyable for young adults and above. Another great feature of this collection is that the stories seamlessly move from rural Cornwall and farmers to New York and businessmen. Du Maurier seems to be at home in every layer of society,  never sketching a character who seems out of touch with reality.

On one or two occasions I found myself wondering at du Maurier's attitude towards women. Most of the stories focus on the relationship between men, women and the world around them, yet only one story has a female protagonist who narrates. In the other stories the characters and narrators often find themselves finding things to keep the women busy or even, twice, remarking on how the "men in the East" have got it made and know how to keep their women subservient. Whether the latter is meant as a form of criticism on these kinds of utterances, I don't know, but as a female author, I would've expected du Maurier to perhaps be a bit more progressive in her characters. I am quite surprised Hitchcock never chose to make a film out of 'Monte Veritá' since it's main female character seems to be everything he sought for in his blondes. On the other hand, she is one of the most empowered women in this collection

I give this short story collection...

4 Universes.

All the stories in this collection draw the reader into their respective worlds. Easily building up characters and narratives, du Maurier creates suspense and terror in a way that grips you. Whether read as a whole or each story separately, everyone is bound to find something they enjoy among these stories.

1 comment:

  1. I really enjoy the atmosphere in Daphne du Maurier's books so I was happy to read that you enjoyed this collection of short stories! I don't think I've read the other short stories in this collection, but I did read The Birds and was struck by how Hitchcock made it so different! It's interesting what you say about du Maurier's attitude towards women, because I do find many of her female characters to be oddly ineffective. But I'm glad I still really enjoy the suspense in her stories even if I can't always love the female characters.

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