My rating: 4 stars
Curiosity can in certain circumstances be a dangerous trait, as Mary Yellan, the main character in Jamaica Inn, soon realised after moving in with her aunt and uncle. Daphne du Maurier penned an atmospheric and mysterious novel set in Cornwall that lays bare the criminal activities that took place in the area. The various absorbing interactions between the characters give the book a life of its own, which is only curbed by a not altogether perfect pacing.
After the death of her mother, Mary Yellan began her journey from Helford, where she had always lived, to near Launceston. She had promised her not to live alone and instead stay with her aunt Patience, who was married with the new landlord of Jamaica Inn, Joss Merlyn. On her way there, she was made aware that the inn had a bad reputation. Respectable people didn’t stop there anymore, but the coach driver didn’t explain the reason why.
The moment 23-year-old Mary arrived at Jamaica Inn, she realised that her uncle was a brute. Her aunt noticeably feared him and looked much older than she truly was in consequence. She wasn’t the bewitching woman Mary remembered anymore. After considering leaving in the middle of night, she decided to stay in order to help her aunt. Early on she had already shown courage by saying to her uncle that, if he ever hurt her aunt, she would go to the magistrate.
Shortly after, taking advantage of her uncle’s absence, Mary tried to know more about what was happening at the inn and asked her aunt some questions. Without giving clear answers, Patience advised her not to leave her bed whenever men went at night to the locked room at the inn. But soon she learnt more than was safe to thanks to her curiosity. On her first Saturday night there, she had to help at the bar while men of vile ilk got drunk. When she was already in bed, she heard the noise of things being dragged. From her window she saw five wagons. Packages were being unloaded at the inn. It was easy for her to conclude that her uncle was managing a smuggling business. Was Joss Merlyn involved in further criminal activities, though?
There is a tangible sense of menace in various instances. The detailed way in which Mary’s actions are described while she was spying on her uncle and the other men increases the sensation of peril and the urgency of her getting back to her room. A dangerous atmosphere is also created at the beginning, during her journey to Jamaica Inn, through the descriptions of her natural surroundings and the weather conditions.
“The wind tore at the roof, and the showers of rain, increasing in violence now there was no shelter from the hills, spat against the windows with new venom.”
While at the inn, Mary met her uncle’s brother, Jem Merlyn, who happily admitted to be a horse thief. He had a finer way of speaking than his brother, whom he claimed not to be friends with. He advised her to run away, because the inn was not a place for a maid. Their first interaction is hugely gripping. Their personalities become immediately clear. She is feisty and determined. He is frank, sure of himself, bold and speaks with an ironic tone. Mary felt attracted to him but dared not trust him. She was quick to confide in another of her (few) acquaintances there, the vicar Francis Davey, however.
Our heroine is a complex character. Despite all her bravery, she occasionally succumbed to fear. She had good intentions but at times didn’t address her aunt with the deserved kindness. And she was aware of this. She mused on her behaviour many times. At a certain instance she even stopped to ponder whether her desires were in accordance with the conduct that was expected of women. Thought-provoking topics, such as this, alcoholism and domestic violence, are embedded in the plot and don’t overpower it.
All scenes and interactions between the characters are easy to picture. Not only are the descriptions detailed and most of the times enthralling, but the dialogues also sound truly real. I particularly loved the interactions between Mary and Jem.
Although the pacing of the novel is not always perfect (the narration of certain events goes on for a little too long), the last chapters are true page-turners. I was eager to discover whether my suspicions were correct and how that would affect the life of the characters. Daphne du Maurier managed to make me doubt my first instincts about certain characters until the last revelation.