The House on the Strand
By Daphne Du Maurier
University of Pennsylvania Press
Time travel and the 14th Century…what more can one want in a book? OK, a lot more, but let’s go with these two as the starter for this one.
Richard Young is staying at his friend Magnus Lane’s home in the English countryside. Magnus is a chemical researcher at the University of London and has concocted a drink, that when taken, will transport a person to the 14th Century. The one catch is that the traveler cannot touch any person while on the trip or they will be instantly hurled back to the present rather painfully. Richard, while waiting for his wife and step-sons to arrive, agrees to take the potion and report back to Magnus with the results. The potion has the same affect on Richard as Magnus and they compare their trips to the past observing the daily lives of the people who used to live in the same area where Magnus’s house is. Richard becomes fascinated with the past so much so that he keeps returning to see one particular woman that he has become obsessed with. His sense of reality takes a turn and he starts to have trouble deciphering the past and the present which frightens him but not enough to stop him from taking what is left of the potion like some madman believing he can change the outcome of the past. The results of his actions make the present a terrifying place for both Richard and his family.
Time travel in books can sometimes go bad but Du Maurier does something that makes it work — she makes it unbelievable. That might sound odd but stick with me. For a good portion of the book, Richard isn’t sure what he’s seeing and he isn’t sure he should believe it. When he starts to believe, things go off track in his life making him wonder if what he thinks he believes is true. Even when some historical research proves that the people he saw and observed on his trips were real, he still isn’t sure what to think or believe. Life becomes difficult for him on so many levels and it seems as if you’re watching a man on the brink of madness. How Du Maurier does this is fascinating and makes the whole idea of time travel so fantastical and terrifying at the same time.
Richard was not a person I liked at first. I didn’t dislike him either but he’s a selfish person and one who doesn’t seem to think, or care, much for his family which is truly annoying. Magnus however was a character I would have liked more of. His ambiguity makes it work though because you get back to the idea of Richard slowly falling into the depths of madness without Magnus around.
There is so much to like about this book. The fantasy element is done well, and even though you’re not sure if it truly exists outside of Richard’s mind, it works and is believable. There are rules and consequences to the time travel and I like that. A free system wouldn’t work here and Du Maurier creates a system that fits perfectly within the confines of the story. The characters all have some sort of flaw that makes even the annoying ones likable, to a degree. You do in the end sympathize with everyone which I wasn’t prepared to do half way through the book.
I will be adding more of Du Maurier’s books to my list. Her writing is wonderfully descriptive and at the same time sparse, as if she’s giving you time to ingest it all.