🙂 🙂 😐
Although this was apparently the last collection of short stories to be published in du Maurier’s lifetime, most of the fourteen stories in it date from her early twenties, with only a handful from later in her career. I feel that shows – these are not her best work, with some of them ranking as pretty poor, in my opinion. In general I found them rather unoriginal, often padded and repetitive to a length far longer than the story justified, with “twists” that were all too obvious. But what really put me off the collection was the almost complete lack of likeable characters. There is, I feel, a kind of cruelty towards the characters – they start out miserable, go through hell, and come out worse than they began; not in every case, but often enough for me to have remarked several times in my contemporaneous notes that she really doesn’t seem to like people, especially women. Her women are either weak and ripe to be victims, or they are manipulative, cruel and cold. There is rarely love in the pages though there’s plenty of lust, desire and rather sordid infidelity. The rare “good” character seldom achieves any kind of reward or happy ending, while many of the nasty ones do quite well for themselves. My misery meter swung towards high quite early on, and by the end it was hovering consistently in the danger zone – only copious supplies of medicinal chocolate got me through.
As you’d expect, they’re well enough written and some of the descriptive writing is very good. Occasional stories are lighter, with some humour, and those tended to work better for me. I listened to the audiobook version read by Edward de Souza, and to be honest I think it was only the excellence of his narration that kept me going to the end. Overall, then, of the fourteen stories, I rated only five as excellent or good, while five rated as poor and the remaining four were middling.
Here’s a brief flavour of the three I rated most highly…
The Supreme Artist – an ageing actor is visited in his changing room after a performance one day by a woman who seems to remember him from a youthful romantic dalliance which he has completely forgotten. However, it would be rude to say so, and he’s an actor, so he throws himself into the part, playing a man who has spent his life hiding the broken heart she left him with. He may or may not convince the woman, but he gradually begins to convince himself! There’s a lot of humour in this and it’s a fun characterisation, done very well.
Leading Lady – an actress this time, not ageing, but no longer in the first blush of youth. She is about to star in a play being produced by a man she has never worked with before. He wants an up-and-coming young actor to play the male lead, but the actress has seen this young man act and fears he will outshine her, with both youth and novelty on his side. But the producer is the money man, of course, so she can’t simply refuse. So she sets out to manipulate the producer into deciding for himself that the young actor shouldn’t get the role. This is also well done, although it’s one of the many where the woman has nothing admirable about her. And frankly, it reads rather differently after the MeToo movement and the many recent scandals in the world of acting than it would have done before – the element that might have seemed humorous when it was written doesn’t seem quite so funny any more.
Escort – A merchant ship is sailing home to England during WW2, through seas dangerous with U-boats. The captain is taken ill so the First Officer, our narrator, finds himself in charge. A U-boat finds them but a sudden fog rolls up just in time to save them. When the fog recedes, an old sailing barque appears, and hails them to offer them a safe escort home. This has a spooky element to it, which is done well. As far as I can find out it must have been written during the war, and it has a definite patriotic message, one designed to draw on British pride in great naval victories of the past. To be truthful, it mirrors very closely a famous story written by Arthur Machen during WW1, The Bowmen, except that his is set on land and draws on a different but equally heroic British legend. Had du Maurier read it, or is it coincidence? I don’t know, but I decided to give her the benefit of the doubt.
So a disappointing collection for me, and one more suitable for du Maurier completists than for newcomers wanting to sample her work.