Review by Elizabeth C. Bunce
Most people know Daphne du Maurier as a suspense writer, creator of psychological and gothic thrillers like Rebecca, Jamaica Inn, and My Cousin Rachel. But what often gets overlooked is her great science fiction, exploring the boundaries between the known and familiar, and the disturbing edges of twentieth century scientific progress. Her classic post-war story “The Birds” was transformed into a Hitchcock horror film that bears only superficial similarity to the isolation, drama, and sheer apocalyptic gloom of the original, in which residents of an English coastal village watch their doom coming ever closer, thanks to terrifying radio news updates, and is well worth a read (perhaps not now… or perhaps particularly now, depending on your predilections!).
Her 1969 novel The House on the Strand explores the psychological effects of time travel, through the lens of unlikeable characters doing uninteresting things. The time machine in du Maurier’s novel is a drug (or “concoction,” as she calls it), or a series of drugs, whose differing effects are never fully (or even partially) explained. Dick Young is an out-of-work publisher housesitting for an old college chum for the summer, in an old house on the Cornish coast (setting of so many of du Maurier’s stories). The old college chum, Magnus, has been experimenting with a time-travel drug, and urges Dick to make his own “trips” into the past.
What follows is a dense tapestry of Cornish landscape and history, although the details and characters take some considerable time to sort out, and Dick never interacts with any of the figures he observes. His instant attachment to the characters of the past is only slightly explained in contrast to his wife (whom he dislikes). A midpoint plot twist introduces a potential murder plotline, and du Maurier definitely keeps the reader guessing (or perhaps hoping) what might happen next. None of my expectations were ultimately borne out, to my disappointment, and the main character never grew any more sympathetic. There is a comeuppance, of a sort, at the very end, satisfying in its own way. It’s easy to read this as an inspiration or forebear for later time travel stories to come, especially Connie Willis’s Doomsday Book, set in the same time period, or Michael Crichton’s Timeline.
The protagonist is less likeable than those in Rebecca, Frenchman’s Creek, and Jamaica Inn—more akin to her characters from short stories like “The Apple Tree,” or almost everyone in My Cousin Rachel.
Think of The House on the Strand less as a time-travel adventure, romance, or mystery, and more of a scathing exploration of mid-century midlife crises, discontented marriage, and the pull of a double life. Fans of her lush descriptions and of English medieval history may find it worth the read in this period of quarantine (since you won’t be able to wander the marshy fields of Cornwall yourself).
For my money, it’s neither as exciting as Jamaica Inn, as deeply affecting as “The Birds,” or as much fun as Frenchman’s Creek. But if you enjoyed the ambiguity of My Cousin Rachel, this might be for you.