Publication Date: 1936
Length: 332 pages
My Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐
I have loved the book Rebecca by Daphne Du Maurier all my life and have watched the 1939 movie adaptation countless times. I am not sure what took me so long to try another of her books but I'm glad I did. Jamaica Inn was so different from Rebecca (except for the Gothic touch) that it almost felt like it was written by a different author. It touches on a topic that is definitely unique and the only other book that comes to mind is Poldark, which is set in Cornwall as well. I love all things associated with the ocean, pirates, and Cornwall so I was really looking forward to reading this.
Mary Yellan has lost her mother and is traveling to Jamaica Inn, a long way from her home in Helford, to fulfull her mother's dying wish. The women had lived a bare bones, hardscrabble life on their farm without Mary's father to help them and now that Mary is alone, her mother wants her to go and live with her Aunt Patience and Uncle Joss. Although Mary is very independent minded and wants to stay on the farm, she realizes that her mother may know better and therefore decides to journey forth, hoping for an exciting adventure and warmth from distant relatives.
Upon arriving at the inn Mary immediately is met with a sense of darkness when she meets her Uncle who is anything but welcoming. A harsh, bitter drunk, he is abusive and secretive and her Aunt Patience is clearly a mental prisoner suffering from years of living with her precarious situation. Mary tries to jump in and accept her life, offering her services in the cleaning and supervising of the inn, but quickly starts to notice they receive no visitors and the place is hardly fit for travelers. She suspects there is more going on underneath and her suspicions are confirmed when late one night she witnesses the rowdy comings and goings of shady men who appear to be unloading cargo and stashing it in a secret room under the direction of her Uncle Joss. Threatened with harm if she discloses what she knows, Mary at first keeps the secrets she has seen, if only to protect her Aunt and her place at the inn.
In her spare time, Mary explores the vast moors and when she becomes lost near dusk, she encounters help from a strange, Albino priest who takes her in, feeds her and gives her a ride back to the inn. She can't quite put her finger on why he makes her a bit uneasy but decides to trust him and knows if she ever gets into a real bind she can go to him. He shows her compassion and appears to be a friend.
As she learns more about her Uncle's "business" ventures and nocturnal activities, Mary becomes terrified that she has stumbled into a situation involving more than just stolen, stored goods. One night Joss, in a drunken stupor, reveals how he obtains the goods and confesses to horrific deeds which plague him even as he has no plans to stop. The ships containing the cargo he steals are plundered in a way that Mary could never have envisioned and she is helpless as to what to do with the information she now knows.
Mary also meets her Uncle's brother, Jem, who she fights an attraction to. He is a much younger brother, closer to Mary's age and the two begin a tentative flirtation that turns somewhat romantic when he challenges her to join him on Christmas Eve in the nearby town of Launceston for holiday festivities. While there, Mary witnesses Jem's reckless behavior when he attempts to sell a stolen horse and she knows she is in over her head, Jem, being a younger version of Joss, and having the same romantically, dangerous streak that drew in her Aunt years ago. Mary does not want to end up like Patience and vows to stand her ground against her feelings for Jem but finds it almost impossible as he awakens feelings in her she has never known before.
Upon returning home to Jamaica Inn, Mary faces her worst nightmare yet. She becomes a pawn in her Uncle's schemes and finds herself in mortal danger. She must find a way to save herself, her Aunt, and reconcile her feelings towards Jem, all while not becoming as hardened as the men who control her.
This book is darker than one I'd normally gravitate to. I admit I found myself wanting more light hearted moments but after finishing it, I realize it does have some light at the end of the tunnel, you just have to be patient. The writing is superb, hence the five star rating, and I can understand why it is a classic, still being read nearly one hundred years later. The characters are fleshed out superbly through their thoughts and flaws as human beings and Du Maurier really captures the despair of Joss, Patience, and Jem, who are tortured in their own, personal ways for the choices they have made in their lives. Mary is a heroine even as you know she doesn't set out to be, she is just trying to survive. Uncompromising in her wish to do the right thing at each turn, you begin to admire her ability to survive each situation she is put in.
I'm not sure if I'll read another Du Maurier book soon. Eventually I'd like to read My Cousin Rachel and The Scapegoat. But I think it's time for a lighthearted summer read....this one was pretty dark and heavy!