Saturday, October 27, 2007

The House on the Strand by Daphne du Maurier - RIP #7

The House on the Strand by Daphne du Maurier
Copyright 1969
Avon Fiction
336 pages

What led you to pick up this book? It's been on my stacks for about a year, on hold for the RIP Challenge. I originally snatched up a copy because I enjoy the author's writing.

Summarize the plot but don't give away the ending. Richard and Magnus have been fast friends since Richard's university years, when Magnus was his professor. Now, having recently left his job in London, Richard is spending the summer in Magnus's house in Cornwall. When Magnus asks him to participate in a time-travel experiment, Richard willingly ingests the time-travel formula in order to determine whether Magnus's journeys in time were hallucination or reality. But, there are dangerous side-effects to the drug and Richard's trips back to the 14th century become increasingly addictive as he takes interest in the lives of those he's observed and enjoys his escapes into the drama of medieval England.

What did you like most about the book? My favorite parts were the historical scenes that Richard observed during his time travel. The 14th century was full of drama - murder, plague, intrigue, illicit affairs . . . the story du Maurier wove about the earlier time period was absolutely engrossing and I could certainly understand why Richard wanted to keep returning to that fascinating world. I also liked the way she wrapped up the medieval storyline, so that it felt complete and one was not left hanging, wondering what became of those characters.

What did you think of the main character? He was okay - not unpleasant, but he was really negative about his wife and step-sons. However, he was a character in the midst of an upheaval and his frustrations made sense. They fed well into his urge to continue traveling, even after some very serious side effects would have stopped most people from drinking more of the time-travel potion.

Thoughts about the plot: I'm tossing this in because I think it's relevant . . . this book is based on the concept that time travel could occur via the ingestion of a chemical formula that effects the brain, opening up pathways to stored memories passed on in a person's genetic makeup. I found this far-fetched, in many ways. First of all, both men traveled to the same place and time; it made no sense that two people who are unrelated would have the same historical memories embedded in their brains, even if such a concept was plausible. The second problem I had with that concept would give away too much of the plot, if mentioned, but I never quite let go of my doubts. Still, I enjoyed the story enough that I was willing to try to fight my reluctance to believe such events could occur.

Share some quotes from the book.

When Richard takes his stepsons out to keep them busy:

The rain petered out about four, giving place to a lustreless sky and a pallid, constipated sun, but this was enough for the boys, who rushed on to the Town Quay and demanded to be waterborne. Anything to please, and postpone the moment of return, so I hired a small boat, powered by an outboard engine, and we chug-chugged up and down the harbour, the boys snatching at passing flotsam as we bobbed about, all of us soaked to the skin.

When Richard's wife, Vita, invites over friends and the visiting couple get a little drunk and start behaving inappropriately (but Richard refuses to join in):

"Talk to me, Dick," said Diana, so close that I had to turn my head sideways like a ventriloquist's doll. "I want to know all about your brilliant friend Professor Lane."

"A detailed account of his work?" I asked. "There was a very informative article about certain aspects of it in the Biochemical Journal a few years ago. I've probably got a copy in the flat in London. You must read it some time."

Share a favorite scene from the book: When a character in the book dies unexpectedly, an inquest is held. I assume this is a very British process, bringing together the coroner and people who knew the deceased to determine the cause of death. In one scene, Richard gets the past and present confused and begins to prattle about the fact that it was snowing and that must have caused trouble. The story takes place in the summer, so there was no snow in the present time period and Richard has to do some quick talking to explain away his mistake, then another person backs him up. The whole inquest process was fascinating and I loved the way the second man backed up Richard's story, off the cuff, as well as the inquest's conclusion: Death by Misadventure. What a great way to describe an accidental death!

In general: I love du Maurier's writing style and found that The House on the Strand lived up to my expectations. As implausible as the chemically-induced time travel concept seemed, I was completely swept away by the medieval scenes and found myself looking forward to them. I also enjoyed the way Richard sought out connections (the remains of old homes and historical information about them) between the past and present. Du Maurier did a pretty good job of balancing past and present storylines, adding tension in the present via the dangerous side-effects of the drug while inserting believable drama and detail in the medieval scenes. I did have trouble distinguishing all of the characters and did a lot of flipping back to the family tree in the front of the book, but eventually they became clearer. I still found myself wishing the author hadn't created a story with two characters by the name of Joanna, an Oliver and an Otto, etc. It was very difficult to figure out who everyone was, until well into the book.

4/5 - Very good. While I wouldn't call this my favorite du Maurier book, it was an excellent escapist read: well-written, often suspenseful and eventually quite gripping. The atmosphere was brilliantly rendered and made The House on the Strand an excellent RIP read.


  1. The only book I've read by her is Rebecca, which I absolutely love. I'll have to give this one a try.

    And, btw, in the US they're called Corner's Inquests and they are rare, but they can be called to investigate a death. Less formal than a court hearing but still an official process. I've seen one held and it had to do with the death of one brother who had been stabbed by another. It was an accident and that's what was determined. It was kinda cool.


  2. This one sounds awesome! I'll have to add it to the list. I've been wanting to read Rebecca for ages after hearing nothing but good about it. I literally don't think I've ever met anyone who didn't like that book. So I'll read Rebecca first and if I like that one, move on to this!

  3. CJ,

    Rebecca is one of my all-time favorites. I've actually lost count of how many du Maurier books I've read but my other favorites are Jamaica Inn and Frenchman's Creek. The House on the Strand is very unique.

    I think they did call it a Coroner's Inquest in the book. It sounded really fascinating; I had no idea we had such a thing, here.


    I think it says something for the author, the fact that I had trouble with some of the concepts but was so swept up in the story that I actually worked at ignoring the things I had trouble grasping or believing. I personally think Rebecca is far and away her best novel, but I love du Maurier's writing and I think you'd enjoy it, too.

  4. I liked this one too.

    As for the concepts, I came to think that Roger's spirit was guiding the whole thing.

    I found the names confusing too.

  5. Chris,

    I'd never have thought of a spiritual guide - that's a great way to look at it. Still, I enjoyed it in spite of that niggling doubt.

    It was hard sorting out all those characters, wasn't it?

  6. I've heard the title of this book many, many times and passed on it because the title is boring (how dumb of me, right?). I never could have guessed this is what it was about! Now it sounds rather interesting. Thanks for the review.

  7. Kookie,

    I guess it is kind of a dull title; I'd never thought about that. I've read a handful of du Maurier books and enjoyed all but one (I think it was The Glass Blowers, but I'm not certain), so I deliberately seek out her novels. It was a slow read for me, but I enjoyed The House on the Strand and if it had been my first du Maurier, I'm sure I would have decided to read more.

  8. I have that exact book on my TBR pile right now! :)

  9. Katie,

    How cool! I hope you get to read it, soon.

  10. Corner's Inquests aren't used very much any more, mainly because they don't seem to be as necessary. I think.


  11. What a through review Nancy, thanks! I love that that Du Maurier has recreated the 14th century in such an awesome manner, I am tempted to read the book just for her descriptions of that fascinating era. I am not crazy about books on time travel so I don't know how that part would grab me, we'll have to see. Again, thank you for your review!

  12. CJ,

    It's not a practice I was the slightest bit familiar with, in spite of having gone through a lengthy mystery phase. You'd think a coroner's inquest would have shown up in one of them (esp. the British reads), if it's still done, but I don't recall ever reading about one. It was really interesting.


    I love time travel, but I think The House on the Strand is a little strange as time travels go - the use of a drug rather than a machine or some other method was hard to wrap my head around. But, the 14th century scenes were fascinating. Richard spends a lot of time trying to figure out what's become of what he saw in the past or the contemporary scenes might have bored me enough to set it aside. I liked the fact that he and Magnus attempted to research the characters and their homes. That search into history helped tie things together well.

    If you read it, let me know. I'd love to hear your thoughts!

  13. An excellent review of one of my favourite books. I agree though that all the names were confusing and I too had to keep referring to the family tree. Another book along the same lines that I enjoyed was Lady of Hay by Barbara Erskine. It's a time travel story where the heroine goes back to the same time period and it too has that wonderful mediaeval atmosphere about it. Set on the border of Wales around Hay on Wye. I loved it.

  14. I love time travel books! The ingested chemical thing has been done before, not that I can remember where. They've had all sorts of loony ideas for time travel, considering none of it (at the moment) are the least bit possible. [sob].

    I had no idea that this book was about time travel and I loved Rebecca too.

  15. Cath,

    Thank you! I wonder if it would be easier to read the book a second time. I liked it enough to revisit the story. But, yeah, those names were confusing. Isolda was the only name that was totally unique and she was easy to remember, anyway.

    I'll look up Lady of Hay, thanks!


    Me, too; I'm a big fan of time travel. I love Jack Finney's time travel stories and Rickey Mallory's Time Rider is another favorite. Any suggestions are welcome!!

    Yes, what a terrible shame that it's not possible. I keep waiting for someone to invent that nifty time machine.

    Rebecca is better, IMHO. But, I really like du Maurier's writing and I think The House on the Strand is one of her best. I'm also very fond of Frenchman's Creek and I liked Jamaica Inn. My Cousin Rachel was kind of disappointing. And, I there's one other book that takes place at a glass factory - I can't ever remember the name of it, but it's the only du Maurier that was a complete let-down. I had to shove my way through that one.

  16. I remember when all those du Maurier novels were reissued with those similar covers. I bought Jaimaca Inn and Rebecca.

  17. Bybee,

    My du Maurier books are almost exclusively old, ugly copies. Yeah, I remember when they released the new, pretty versions. At that point, I'd been searching for du Maurier books and found a few used copies. The only really pretty one I've bought is Frenchman's Creek. And, I did feel like it was a keeper.


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