Wednesday, December 22, 2021

BOOK REVIEW: Rebecca's Tale by Sally Beauman

Rebecca’s Tale by Sally Beauman is a reexamination of Daphne du Maurier’s classic gothic tale Rebecca. Although I loved Rebecca when I read it several years ago, it’s a book that leaves the reader with a lot of questions. Who was she really and how did she die? The narrator of the novel is the second wife, Rebecca’s replacement, so her interpretation is bound to be biased.

Sally Beauman comes at the story obliquely, using three new narrators and a fourth, Rebecca herself.

On the twentieth anniversary of Rebecca’s death, the now elderly ex-magistrate of the town, who had been a friend to both Maxim de Winters (the jealous husband) and Rebecca, is suffering nightmares and heart troubles. He has long felt guilty over the way Rebecca’s death was handled and the role he had in the inquisition. He was a bit in love with her too (everyone was)but he allowed the case to be closed without looking too carefully at the poor-quality evidence. He wants to go back and reevaluate, to uncover the truth, but still protect the privacy of those involved. The reader follows along with his muddled inquiries and memories, leaving the question still very much unresolved. But the character of the magistrate, Colonel Julyan, is wonderfully drawn. A cranky, stuffy, elderly man who is desperately clinging to his dignity while being cared for by his sole remaining child, his daughter Ellie. 

The second protagonist is Terrence Gray, a young historian who has come to town to work part-time at the local archives, cataloguing the de Winters’ papers. He is very interested in the mysterious Rebecca and has befriended Julyan and Ellie in order to learn what the Colonel knows. The Colonel is slow to trust him. Ellie falls for him. But the reader soon learns that Gray himself has a mysterious connection to Rebecca. At least, he thinks he does – but doesn’t know what it is. He’s as intriguing and multi-layered a character as Rebecca. 

The third viewpoint we see is Rebecca’s own, through the device of her diaries showing up after all these years. Someone is mailing the diaries and other personal effects once belonging to Rebecca to her few surviving friends/relatives. Eventually, Julyan, Gray, and Ellie read these diaries. Each has a different reaction to them. Even in her diaries, Rebecca is an unreliable narrator. 

Finally, the fourth narrator is Ellie. She has grown up knowing and not knowing the story of Rebecca, only ever approaching her through the stories she’s heard. She’s curious about her but also frustrated with the hold the woman still has over her father and now, over Terrence Gray. But with the arrival of the diaries, she feels she finally understands the woman. Rebecca’s influence changes the course of Ellie’s life too. 

This book does a beautiful job of echoing the gothic, mysterious air of the original, while expanding beyond the claustrophobic atmosphere of Manderley (the de Winters’ estate) to include other characters and other locales. Rebecca is given a backstory.

As the four narrators piece together Rebecca’s life and events leading to her death, the murky picture presented in the original becomes a little clearer. But only a little. In the end, Rebecca remains a mystery. As she should.

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