I thought I would spend Easter with My Cousin Rachel in anticipation of the UK release of the film adaptation on 9th June. I am certainly keen to see how this novel transfers to the screen because, on the page, it is a consummate psychological thriller that plays expertly with the device of the unreliable narrator.
That narrator is Philip Ashley, a young man who, after being orphaned as an infant, is raised by his much older cousin Ambrose. What this situation gifts Ambrose is some kind of bachelor idyll: he has the ‘son’ and heir without having to marry. A situation that suits Ambrose perfectly since he believes women make “mischief in a household” and, consequently, “[employs] only menservants” (du Maurier, p. 9).
Despite only being in his early 40s, Ambrose’s health is failing. He thus takes to spending his winters in Italy. It is during one such sojourn that Ambrose meets and marries Rachel, a distant cousin. After a brief period of bliss, Ambrose’s health begins to deteriorate rapidly. Before he dies, his letters home to Philip heavily imply that Rachel is poisoning him.
When the widowed Rachel eventually arrives in England, Philip is determined to exact revenge. However, he becomes increasingly infatuated with her.
This is not a novel of action, but it remains tense, gripping and atmospheric throughout. Perspectives constantly shift. Is Rachel an innocent widow or a scheming adulteress? Can we really trust Philip or has his view of Rachel been coloured by his lack of female contact?
But perhaps, in a novel that is so much concerned with gender relations, the main question the narrative raises is who or what is the real killer – Rachel or misogyny?
Absorbing from the get-go, My Cousin Rachel also has, to my mind, probably the best closing line I’ve ever read – one that will made me question everything I’d just read and want to start from the beginning to see what I’d missed.