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A Book A Week: Daphne by Justine Picardie

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Finally, another book to add to my "2009 Favorites" list, though I can't say Justine Picardie's Daphne will appeal to everyone. Did you read Rebecca, by Daphne du Maurier, when you were younger? Or, like my friend Nora, did you read it last week? Just be sure to do so before you begin Daphne or much of the depth and significance will escape you.

Like several other books I've read this year, Daphne is a mash-up of fact and fiction, and it shifts back and forth between the past and the present. The chapters set in the past are a fictionalized account of several years in Daphne du Maurier's life, years during which she embarked on an ambitious biography of Branwell Brontë, the little-known brother of the famous Bronte sisters Charlotte and Emily. It's also a time of marital upheaval for Daphne, and of doubt about her own abilities, direction and sanity.

Another set of chapters tell the story of the researcher that du Maurier has hired to help her with the Branwell Brontë book. This character (John Alexander Symington, who is real, not fictional) was involved in a scandal concerning missing Brontë manuscripts. He is unstable and of questionable value to du Maurier; his chapters add another layer of dread to the story.

The (purely fictional) chapters set in the present are narrated by a young Oxford Ph.D student who is researching du Maurier's life during the period she wrote the Bronte biography, and following the trail of Symington and his shenanigans. Thus we see many of the same episodes from two vantage points. This present-day narrator has much in common with the narrator of du Maurier's book Rebecca; both are young, unsophisticated and married to distant older men who may or may not be hiding something. Parallels between these two narrators abound, and it's interesting to spot them.

In her heyday, Daphne du Maurier sold millions of books, but was dismissed by her contemporary critics as a lightweight purveyor of gothic-type fiction for women. Yet she proved to have staying power and enjoyed a long and fruitful career. Modern critics are busily reshaping her image. As anyone knows who has read her books, she is a wonderful writer who created enduring characters, fascinating locales and unsettling stories. Her writing is topnotch: erudite and atmospheric. In Daphne, Justine Picardie has paid homage to du Maurier's legacy with similarly excellent writing and a haunting story.

Becky Holmes blogs about books at A Book A Week.

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