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'I bid you welcome to Jamaica Inn.'
Jamaica Inn - Daphne Du Maurier
Member Name: Anti
Jamaica Inn - Daphne Du Maurier
Advantages: Great story, brilliant characterization, vivid atmosphere and setting.
Disadvantages: Poorly written dialogue at times.
'Jamaica Inn' is a classic gothic novel by Daphne Du Maurier written in 1936 but (presumably) set in the late 19th century. This was another pick from the library as I enjoy Du Maurier's gothic tales and since 'Jamaica Inn' is one of her most acclaimed works I picked it up in the hopes of reading a great thriller. So, did it live up to my hopes?
When Mary Yellan's mother dies, she follows her last request to leave her quaint farm and home in Helford and live with her Aunt Patience across the moors at Jamaica Inn. Unfortunately, as both her coachman and a fellow traveller warn her, the inn is a brooding place filled with deceit and wickedness. Her aunt is now a broken woman, completely under the thumb of her dominating husband, Joss Merlyn.
The inn's atmosphere stifles Mary as she tries her best to stand against her uncle while pulling her aunt together so they can both escape. However she soon becomes embroiled in her uncle's secret deeds despite Joss's threats to ignore what she hears and sees, but her chance to be freed of Jamaica Inn's wickedness is thrown into turmoil thanks to her growing feelings for Joss's younger brother, Jem Merlyn- but can he be trusted too?
Whilst I enjoyed 'Jamaica Inn', I wouldn't say it's a perfect book worthy of 5 stars just because it's a classic.
It certainly has the elements of a good thriller: suspense (especially with chapters ending on cliffhangers), the mysteries of the shady activities that are based at the eponymous inn that pique our curiosity as well as Mary's. Above all, Du Maurier vividly creates a Jamaica Inn is far from serving the purposes it is meant to, even from just people's impressions given in the first chapter. It is isolated, dilapidated and lifeless, and its dark atmosphere greatly affects its current inhabitants so that we feel frustrated for Mary in her attempts to bring some sort of normality to the place.
The characterization is very good. Mary Yellan is an excellent protagonist; the deaths of her parents and her reluctance to leave Helford if only at her mother's request make her a sympathetic character straight away. However, unlike her aunt she is down to earth, strong-willed and determined to escape Jamaica Inn's grip, hence she isn't afraid to challenge her domineering uncle and his colleagues despite the fact he could easily break her wrists! Foolhardy or not, I had to admire her determination as the novel became further more depressing after all she witnesses. Joss Merlyn himself is a big brute who dominates the household physically and psychologically, but does have some dry humour in him, at least when sober. Fortunately he isn't quite a clichéd evil 'antagonist' although he comes close- in fact he is most sinister when drunk and reveals his true occupation to Mary, plus when one of his operations backfires he does show vulnerability towards his position towards the end, if only for himself rather than his wife and niece. Plus he seems well-aware of his family's 'bad blood' and is happy to go the way of his ancestors. We don't learn as much about Aunt Patience's history but we don't need to, as it's clear she's a broken bird and different from the woman Mary knew as a child when she's on the verge of marriage. She is such an utterly pitiful character due to her submissiveness and loyalty towards her husband that I felt more for Mary's frustrations at her ineffectualness rather than Patience herself.
Two more supporting characters of importance are Joss Merlyn's brother Jem and the vicar of a nearby church named Francis Davey, both of whom prove to be the closest things Mary has to allies during her time at Jamaica Inn. Jem Merlyn is a very complex character because although he is as much a criminal as his brother, it's on a smaller scale and he's more of a 'loveable rogue'. He can be snarky and has a good sense of humour which puts on par with Mary and makes their growing relationship more realistic and complicated since she is unable to trust any man, let alone the brother of her evil uncle. Francis Davey is a strange vicar who despite himself offers Mary comfort and advice when she gets to her wit's end. Yet Du Maurier does reminds us constantly of Davey's sinister appearance, as he is an albino; and sometimes I wish she didn't do that as it slightly gives hints towards a plot twist at the end of the story.
From beginning to end 'Jamaica Inn' is well-paced and perfectly atmospheric in its writing. However, Du Maurier does also struggle with unnatural dialogue in places. Characters have habits of stating either their or another character's emotions/state of mind aloud, which I found off putting because such emotions are inferred from the narrative anyway. Maybe it's just me, but people don't usually describe their own feelings in such a way to another person, especially as the author has already stated what a character is feeling or thinking outside dialogue. That's probably the biggest flaw I found with this novel though, and perhaps it could be a result of how people spoke back in these times (which just shows how familiar I am with books set in the 19th century, I suppose!).
'Jamaica Inn' is an exciting story that I quite enjoyed reading with a brilliant gothic setting and many sinister undertones. It may suffer from some poorly written dialogue, but otherwise it is a good read and a well deserved classic.
I got my copy from the library, but you can find the copy I read (published by Virago Modern Classics) for as little as 1p used on Amazon Marketplace, or £5.84 new from the website.
(Review also on Ciao under the username Anti_W)
Summary: A near-perfect classic thriller from Daphne Du Maurier.