Film versions of Rebecca, The Birds and Don’t Look Now continue to bring viewers back to Daphne du Maurier’s short stories.
Don’t Look Now is du Maurier’s 1971 short story collection. It includes Don’t Look Now, Not After Midnight, A Border-Line Case, The Way of the Cross and The Breakthrough.
None are truly ‘short’ stories. The unhurried writing style means each one is more novella-like in length. Some of the writing (or perhaps the social settings) seems dated, too.
The characters are humdrum people turned detective in different ways. Each struggles to discover a truth, only to be misled by their own shortsightedness.
In Don’t Look Now, grieving parents John and Laura holiday in Venice. They meet two sisters who tell Laura their dead daughter “is sitting between you and your husband.” The announcement triggers a bizarre chain of events.
What follows isn’t entirely similar to Nicholas Roeg’s 1973 film. This is more a slow-burn of pedestrian details (marriage, Italy, dinner). And, whether you’ve seen the film or not, the final twist no longer packs a punch.
Other stories follow a similar pattern. They’re gossipy tales, and slightly hammy. Yet read without expectation they’re entertaining and engrossing. There are flashes of brilliance, too: of keenly observed characters and touching lyricism.
In A Border-Line Case, du Maurier describes the moments before learning someone has died as a kind of time travel:
“They are living in the past, Shelagh thought, in a moment of time that does not exist any more. The nurse would never eat the buttered scones she had anticipated, glowing from her walk, and her mother, when she glanced into the mirror later, would see an older, more haggard face beneath the piled-up coiffure.”
The characters in The Way of the Cross wander Jerusalem with no grand plot to tie them together. Instead, their histories, and their interactions which each other, fill the frame. This is travel fiction like E.M. Forster‘s. It suggests we experience other places through what we bring to them of home.
Du Maurier’s is a grand view of human nature. Her on-screen legacy is deserved, as is her ability to tell cinematic (‘page-turner’) stories. Yet to ignore the ways in which she’s so much more is the real oversight.
Daphne du Maurier, Don’t Look Now (1971). Penguin Classics, 2016
Other books like Don’t Look Now
- Tales of the Unexpected, by Roald Dahl (stories with a twist)
- The Birds or The Breakthrough, by Daphne du Maurier (menace, unease)
- Goodbye to Berlin, by Christopher Isherwood (people watching, travel)
Picture credit: Ingeborg Gärtner-Grein