Author Terri Nixon reviews Jamaica Inn by Daphne du Maurier for the Cornish Reading Challenge!
I first read this book as a mid-teen, but although I’ve always known I’d enjoyed it, my memory did not do justice to the beauty of this book, and I realised that when I came to re-read it again recently.
It’s set in very familiar surroundings for me; I grew up on the edge of Bodmin Moor (between the ages of 9 and 19) and I was a regular in the church choir, which took turns each Sunday at several of the villages noted in the book; most notably Altarnun, Lewannick, and North Hill – the village where I lived during those years. I’d forgotten how much of a role North Hill played in the story of Mary Yelland, following the characters as they traversed between villages, and out on the open moor, I could easily envisage it all. And, needless to say, I appreciated it a lot more than I did as a youngster!
But even without the personal, local connection, it would have been a delight to plunge back into this dark tale of mystery, romance and intrigue; the characters – good and bad – are so beautifully drawn; crushingly real, complex and fascinating. The story itself is one of violence, fear, and crime… and the unexpected sweetness of a potential new love, just when you least expect it; allies and enemies, the complicated meshing of the two, and the courage of a girl who refuses to be dragged down by the weight of her family’s history. The immediate impression of Joss Merlyn, on his niece, sets the tone perfectly for their volatile and frightening relationship: “though there should be a world of difference between the smile of a man and the bared fangs of a wolf, with Joss Merlyn they were one and the same.”
The language is raw and honest; flowery description wouldn’t sound right when you’re describing such a bleak and dramatic landscape, and du Maurier strikes exactly the right note in every scene – be it the loneliness of a new life with unknown relatives, the fear of discovering what kind of life is is, or the tenderness of a friendship that just might be the one thing that saves you.
In short, Jamaica Inn is not a “romantic novel,” in the generally accepted meaning, but the romantic wildness of the Cornish landscape plays a huge role in transporting the reader to Bodmin Moor, and the coast that brings both riches and misery to its inhabitants. Exciting, and satisfying, this novel is deservedly labelled a classic.