Tag Archives: Speculative Fiction

The House on the Strand, by Daphne du Maurier – Discovering Daphne Readalong #3

3.5 stars3.5/5

“Curiouser and curiouser”, said Alice famously, after descending the rabbit hole to Wonderland and drinking a mysterious draught from a flask. Unlike Alice, whose body becomes etiolated, in The House on the Strand it is our protagonist’s mind that is altered when he drinks a drug concocted by his professor-friend Magnus Lane, and ‘curious’ would be my take on this unusual novel.

Virago Press, 2003 paperback edition, 353 pages - personal library

Dick Young is temporarily staying in the house of his friend, a biophysicist in Kilmarth, Cornwall. He agrees to play guinea-pig in an experiment, testing a drug which appears to have the effect of transporting him back in time to the 14th century. Although Dick’s mind is transported his body remains in the present and as a result he traipses around the countryside oblivious to the existing surroundings until he inadvertently bumps into an obstruction. On each trip, he finds himself witnessing the lives of the people he finds there, in particular a woman named Lady Isolda Carminowe and a steward named Roger who he finds he is compelled to follow. Unfortunately for Dick, his wife Vita and her two sons come to join him in Cornwall from America, which he finds frustrating because it interrupts his visits to the past which he finds he is more and more addicted to. Vita becomes increasingly worried by Dick’s strange behaviour as he is drawn further into his medieval world.

I found The House on the Strand frustratingly slow-going for the first half of the book and I didn’t find myself wanting to pick it up much in the first few chapters. Firstly I was a bit unsure about the pseudo-scientific explanations that Marcus gives for why the drug takes Dick back in time (although in hindsight, this may have been deliberate on the part of du Maurier). Secondly, I couldn’t get to grips with the medieval characters for some reason – compared to the people in the modern day they just didn’t seem as real or as interesting. Again, perhaps this was for a good reason!

I did say on the phone to Savidge Reads today that I found it sad that Dick seemed to be missing out on enjoying the present because of his obsession with the characters from the past and that maybe du Maurier was making a point about this. Since reading Picardie’s Daphne, and a range of du Maurier’s writing I’ve started to see more recurring themes in her novels. At times I felt that Dick’s escapism was akin to du Maurier’s own sense of affinity with other worlds, but I also thought that at times she projected a part of herself onto Vita, the wife left bemused by her distracted husband. This goes to something else which I found interesting about The House on the Strand, which is that it is written from the perspective of a man, but this was initially quite ambiguous and I didn’t attribute the gender of the narrator as male until I had read a few pages in. Daphne du Maurier is said to have been a tomboy when she was younger and after her death it was revealed that she most likely had lesbian relationships (although she never openly admitted this) so perhaps it is not surprising then that she plays with gender and questions of sexuality. There are also strong hints at a homosexual undertone in  The House on the Strand – I’ll need to re-configure my Gaydar if Professor Lane is not supposed to be secretly in interested in Dick (no pun intended), and although it is not suggested that Dick is interested in the Professor sexually, he does feel very connected to him. To add to the mystery, although Dick seems to have next to no interest in sleeping with his wife, he does seem quite spellbound by Isolda! What a mixed-up character.

So, hopefully you can tell by now that I became more and more intrigued by The House on the Strand as it developed. I can’t say that I ever really got into the parts of the book that were set in the 1300s, but I really did enjoy the contemporary parts of the novel. It probably helped that I really curled up with the book properly today and became absorbed in it. It also helped that around page two-hundred, du Maurier starts to work her dark magic and embellishes the story with some nasty little twists and turns. Looking back, I’m not quite sure if I think The House on the Strand is a too flawed to be an example of Daphne du Maurier’s genius or whether some of the flaws that I perceived were actually intended (such as the spurious scientific ideas!). I’m happy to give her the benefit of the doubt, as even though I struggled at times with this book, yet again I’m impressed with her ability to experiment with such varied concepts in her writing and I know that I’ll be thinking about the story of The House on the Strand for years to come.

The Godless Boys, by Naomi Wood

3.5 stars3.5 / 5

An evening event at Picador brought debut author Naomi Wood to my attention. She read aloud from her new novel The Godless Boys, while looking effortless in a pair of stylish trousers and simple blouse. (I was feeling bedraggled at the time and hence, a little envious). Sartorial choices aside, Naomi’s reading was engaging and I was left with the impression that her new story might be mentally taxing or it might be just very interesting so I thought I’d find out which.

The Godless Boys, Naomi Wood

Picador, 2011 edition, paperback, 320 pages - review copy.

I do like the odd dollop of speculative fiction once in a while and I got on very well with Never Let Me Go recently. It is a curious journey to be lead down the path of an alternative reality.

The Godless Boys is set in the 1980’s. England is controlled by the Church, and members of the Secular Movement have been expelled to an island. References to home-made bombs and guerrilla terrorist activity evoke images akin to those that occurred during The Troubles in Ireland. Segregated, the population live a simple life but an unsettled one. A gang of young men has formed – Nathaniel and his ‘Malades’. They skulk about hunting for signs of religious devotion amongst the islanders and keen to punish those who have strayed. When flame-haired Sarah Wickes arrives on the island seeking her mother, she becomes caught up in more than one type of conflict.

I was a little bemused about where this island actually was. Sarah is from Newcastle, and the novel often refers to Warkworth bay and cliffs, however I couldn’t place where the island would actually be. Poetic licence I suppose, although I did think it would be interesting if it had been set in Lindisfarne (Holy Island) due to the theme of religious conflict in the novel. Wood’s descriptive capacity really is wonderful though – I could really sense the briny atmosphere and the dramatic sense of isolation amidst a stormy sea.

I found interesting the idea of younger generations taking up a cause that they would have no living memory of, especially in light of the recent attacks on police officers in Ireland. Is it because of the scars left behind through the generations, some innate human desire for conflict or a result of deprivation? The answer probably lies somewhere between all three causes and to be honest, it’s probably best if I don’t dwell too much on the downsides of the human condition!

I really warmed to the characters of Eliza and Arthur, a seemingly star-crossed pair, and I also liked Sarah. She was feisty but with a very real sense of peril. Nathaniel was convincingly charming yet there was always a sense of threat lurking under the surface. When I was first introduced to the ‘Malades’, I must admit that I felt they were too much reminiscent of A Clockwork Orange’s Alex and his ‘droogs’ especially with the boys’ obsession with tight trousers and shaved heads. I also found that in parts of the book, Wood was working a bit hard to get all of her ideas across – that said, she did a rather excellent job of portraying quite a detailed world, with its own topsy-turvy dialect, code of ethics and history. I could really picture it and was drawn into the hopes and fears of the islanders. The tension was racked up in the second half of the book because I really cared about what would happen to Eliza and Arthur, Sarah and Nathaniel this really carried through to the end.

So was The Godless Boys original? Well, kind of… I felt that the novel borrowed and built on ideas from other speculative novels yet had a definite style of its own. Was it interesting? Yes. Ms Wood’s angle on human belief systems and reasons for conflict is conveyed through a well-paced plot with convincing characters. I’m looking forward to seeing how she develops her style in the future.

Do you enjoy speculative / dystopian fiction and if so what books have really made an impact on you in this genre?