Phillip Ashley is 24 and his older cousin’s heir. Raised by his adored batchelor cousin, Ambrose, he is old before his time, settled in his ways and requiring nothing other than his home to be content  Yet his world is set to be shaken following Ambrose’s surprise marriage to a widowed Italian contessa and his suspicious death which follows soon after.

Ambrose’s marriage and demise happen off-page.  Phillip only hears news  through increasingly rare and distressed letters from his cousin, accusing his wife, Rachel, of controlling, manipulative behaviour and much worse. Surprisingly following Ambrose’s death, Phillip remains his heir (for reasons that surface much later) and Rachel is an impoverished widow.  When she arrives on English shores, Phillip is set for a confrontation …

..  and yet the woman’s natural charm and grace and elegance disarm him. The question is whether Rachel has ulterior motives. Is she what she seems  – a grieving widow seeking further memories of her beloved – or is the impoverished and somewhat older woman seeking to twist the boy (yes, at 24 Phillip is still a boy) around her little finger to take what she can – including his life – if necessary?

Answering that question here will ruin the novel for those who have not read it. So I won’t – actually I’m not sure that I can, because such are the sleights of the author’s hand that one minute I saw it, the next minute I did not. The  result is a slippery, suggestive text with little hard evidence and an awful lot of interpretation on the part of the characters and the reader.   For instance do Ambrose’s letters tell the whole truth, just a kernel of truth or are they the paranoid delusions of a man suffering from a terminal brain tumour?

The reader is conditioned to dislike Rachel, while her behaviour belies all suspicion. And yet, once or twice her mask slips and the paragon of virtue becomes cold and hostile. Usually when there is some tension between herself and the narrator, Phillip himself.  You see it’s impossible to see Rachel unfiltered as she truly is.  Phillip controls her image, and that corresponds to his emotional state.  When he is besotted, she is an angel of light. When he is angry or thwarted, she is grasping and manipulative.

This isn’t just a gothic,  domestic drama, although it is superb, read as such. These are elemental power games.  Rachel is well aware of her feminine allure and the advantage of her experience. Phillip is well aware of the power of money to control the woman he once hated but now does not wish to lose. This battle of the sexes looks as though it could end in happiness for both until he tips the balance so much in her favour that ….  No, no, that would be telling. What I will say is that he does it on the day he comes into his inheritance – April Fool’s Day. Need I say more? Perhaps just one more thing – it triggers a series of events that mirror those preceeding Ambrose’s death.

My Cousin Rachel is one of Du Maurier’s masterpieces, meticulously plotted and seriously unputdownable  (even on a day when I was feeling under the weather.) Thanks to the #1951club for providing the impetus to pick it up at long last. I now eagerly anticipate the forthcoming film, though I have no idea how it will convey the ambiguity of the text without driving the audience (me) insane.

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