Don't Look Now: Ornately dressed masked figure in Venice

Don’t look now, by Daphne du Maurier

Just as du Maurier inspired directors to bring to life Rebecca, The Birds and Don’t Look Now on the big screen, those films continue to bring viewers to their origin stories. Yet some readers may be disappointed – not because the writing is bad, but because it’s too good.

There are five stories in this collection: Don’t Look Now, Not After Midnight, A Border-Line Case, The Way of the Cross and The Breakthrough. None are truly ‘short’ stories: each is eminently unhurried in the telling and, consequently,  more novella-like in length. First published in 1971, much of the writing is quite dated now, though not entirely in an unpleasing way, with a cast of plum-mouthed characters in sinister (or so they imagine) situations. These are humdrum people turned detective by fortune – or perhaps misfortune – struggling to discover the truth while invariably misled by their own short-sightedness.

In Don’t Look Now, John and Laura are holidaying in Venice while trying to get over the death of their child. Then they meet a pair of sisters who tell Laura that the dead girl “is sitting between you and your husband,” setting off a bizarre chain of events. It’s worth adding that what follows isn’t entirely similar to Nicholas Roeg’s 1973 film. This is more a slow-burn of pedestrian details (marriage, Italy, dinner) with a shock twist which – film or not – isn’t entirely unexpected.

Many of the stories follow a similar pattern: popular tales, slightly hammy, yet – when read without expectation – are both entertaining and engrossing. Beyond this, however, are flashes too of brilliance; of keenly observed characters and touching lyricism.

In A Border-Line Case, du Maurier describes the moment before learning someone has died as a kind of time travel:

“They are living in the past, Shelagh thought, in a moment of time that does not exist any more. The nurse would never eat the buttered scones she had anticipated, glowing from her walk, and her mother, when she glanced into the mirror later, would see an older, more haggard face beneath the piled-up coiffure.”

The characters in The Way of the Cross wander Jerusalem with no grand plot to tie them together. Instead it is their past and present, and their interactions which each other, which fills the frame. This is travel fiction like Forster’s, a kind which suggests that a place is most often experienced by what we bring to it from home.

Du Maurier’s is a grand view view of human nature and environment. Her on-screen legacy is deserved, and her ability to tell cinematic (‘page-turner’) stories a shrewd skill, yet to ignore the ways in which she’s so much more is the real oversight. Look now.

Similar to: Tales of the Unexpected (Roald Dahl), The Birds (du Maurier), The Driver’s Seat (Spark)

Don’t look now, Daphne du Maurier (1971). Penguin Classics, 2016


Words: my own except where quoted.

Photo by Ingeborg Gärtner-Grein via Unsplash.