Daphne du Maurier and time travel? Sure, let’s give it a shot.
That was my entire thought process when I decided to buy this from a secondhand bookstore last summer. Rebecca is terrifying and brilliant, and I figured that if du Maurier applied even a portion of her talent to this story, it wouldn’t be half bad. And it wasn’t. I still prefer Rebecca, but who doesn’t.
Our protagonist is Dick Young, and he’s agreed to be part of an experiment done by his college friend, Professor Magnus Lane. Dick will live in Magnus’s house in Cornwall and take the prescribed doses of a substance the professor has created, which will enable him to time travel. What is this substance, and how precisely does it work? Shhhhhhh…
Not only does the substance transport Dick into the past, it transports him to a very specific past: when he takes the dose, he witnesses events that happened in the exact location he happens to be – except in the 14th century. We, and Dick, learn that the land around Magnus’s house used to be owned by the Carminowe family, a group of nobles who, in addition to their own inter-family drama, were also involved in some skullduggery involving the throne of England. Dick’s unknowing guide is Roger, a steward working for the family. For reasons that are, unfortunately, never explained, Dick always ends up near Roger when he travels back in time, and doesn’t seem capable of wandering too far away from him when he’s in the past. By following Roger, Dick meets the extended Carminowe clan, which includes a very bad man named Oilver Carminowe and his very pretty wife Isolda (the family is all siblings and in-laws and even with the family tree provided at the beginning of the book, I could never quite keep the characters straight in my head). You can probably guess where this is going – Dick becomes more interested in his trips to the past than his life in the present, and this has a disastrous effect on his own family.
The drug has its downsides, obviously – first, when Dick is in the 14th century, touching anyone or anything will instantly send him back to the present (which, at least, means that we don’t have to worry about Dick accidentally going Terminator on his own future). Also the aftereffects of the drug include nausea, temporary paralysis, and severe disorientation. While under the influence of the drug, Dick continues to walk around in a kind of stupor, and wakes up having no idea where he is. And on top of all that, the drug is extremely addictive.
So it’s a bad time all around. As you can see from my rating, overall I was “meh” on this one, but I’ll admit that there were plenty of parts that had me engrossed. Like Dick, who gets only little bits of information at a time while he ping-pongs around in time, I was interested in learning just what Isolda’s husband was up to, and what the consequences would be for her. Daphne du Maurier does dramatic tension and shady secrets like nobody’s business, so Dick’s obsession with the exploits of people who died centuries ago was understandable to me, because she made it fascinating.
But still – three stars only. First, Dick is (wait for it…) a dick (RIMSHOT). He’s clearly supposed to be unlikeable – the way he treats his wife and stepsons with either indifference or contempt was particularly charming – but that didn’t make it easy to root for him. The trips to the past, while fun and interesting, are serious info-dumps and require the historical characters to keep doing that thing where they’ll be talking to someone and say, “Well, as you know…” and then proceed to explain in detail exactly what this other person supposedly knows already. Ugh. But altogether, this ended up being a lot more engrossing and creepy than I expected – the fact that Dick can’t touch anything while watching the Carminowe’s makes him begin to believe that he’s becoming some kind of ghost, and that the people in the 14th century are the ones who are really alive, while Dick and his family are only a kind of memory. At its best, The House on the Strand is a dark, Gothic story of a man slowly losing his grip on reality.
Verdict: three out of five stars