Don’t Look Now: of human nature and hauntings | Book review

Venice canal at night.

Daphne Du Maurier’s stories are often overtaken by their film adaptations, but her fiction serves up dread and brilliance on the page, too.

If Don’t Look Now is best known via Nicolas Roeg’s 1973 film adaptation, it was first Daphne du Maurier’s creation. The short story originally appeared in a 1971 collection, comprising:

  • Don’t Look Now
  • Not After Midnight
  • A Border-Line Case
  • The Way of the Cross
  • The Breakthrough.

Du Maurier’s characters are humdrum people struggling to discover a truth, but each time their shortsightedness leads them astray.

In Don’t Look Now, grieving parents John and Laura holiday in Venice. There, they encounter two weird sisters who tell Laura their dead daughter “is sitting between you and your husband.” This creepy announcement kicks-off a bizarre chain of events.

What follows isn’t entirely similar to the film; the written story is more a slow-burn of pedestrian details (marriage, Italy, dinner). Whether you’ve seen the film or not, the big twist no longer packs a punch: it’s too well known, and plays on unfair stereotypes.

More than movies

The other stories in the collection follow a similar pattern as gossipy, slightly hammy tales. 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 stories recognisably cinematic page-turners. There’s so much more to the author than cinema source material, though. To ignore that is to miss the big picture.

Don’t Look Now, by Daphne du Maurier (1971)

Quoted edition published by Penguin Classics (2016)

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Picture credit: Alessio Furlan