Guess who’s back? Back again? Etc. Apologies for disappearing without word, especially in the middle of a pandemic. I haven’t been sick, just busy with work and a bit blue due to the dark evenings/Lockdown 2 Electric Boogaloo/the last minute cancellation of Christmas. Also, I haven’t been reading much of anything, so there hasn’t been much for me to write about. However, I did manage to read The House on the Strand by Daphne du Maurier. First published in 1969, The House on the Strand was Daphne du Maurier’s take on the experiments being done with hallucinogens at the time. Essentially: what if LSD caused your mind to travel back in time, while keeping your body in the present day? It’s an interesting premise, but one that I sadly didn’t feel that she delivered on. This is my fourth du Maurier novel, and it’s the first one that I didn’t find that brilliant. (I disliked My Cousin Rachel, but that was all to do with personal taste – it’s a fantastic book, just me and my issue with unlikeable narrators).

Our narrator, Dick, is an unemployed middle-class Englishman whose new wife, Vita, wants him to move to the States with her. She is an American and has a friend who’s willing to give him a job. While he thinks it over, he goes to housesit for an old university friend, Magnus, who’s become a famous biophysicist and is investigating hallucinogens. In return for living in his extremely old home rent-free, he asks Dick to try an unlabelled drug that will have some sort of effect on him. Magnus refuses to elucidate what this will be in advance, and the dose is “a few drops”. Dick is a champion at making bad decisions – something that becomes apparent over the course of the novel – so, naturally, he does. (Incidentally, my inner healthcare researcher was protesting the whole time. Magnus refuses to tell Dick what the drug he’s investigating might do in order to avoid compromising the results – but he controls nothing else about the experiment, not even the dose. I recognise that people really were doing science like this in the 60s, but it’s still infuriating to read about. That is not how you run a Phase I trial, Magnus). The drug transports him – or at least his mind – back in time to the 14th century, when Magnus’s house was relatively new and the surrounding area was very different.

I think the sections set in the 14th century suffered from being written in the first person, but having a narrator who couldn’t actually do anything. Dick is a passive observer of everything, but the people in the past can’t see or hear him, and if he tries to touch them then he will be violently jerked back to the present. I found it difficult to follow (or care about) the storyline set in the past – not least because some of the characters have the same name. The House on the Strand is the last book I finished, and I would still struggle to tell you much about the 14th century plotline – there is some intrigue about lovers and murder and monks, but parsing it all out was a bit beyond me.

For me, the contemporary storyline was much more compelling. We see Dick gradually becoming addicted to the time travel drug, though the precise mechanism is unclear – is he physiologically addicted, or simply very invested in the story he’s seen playing out before him? As Vita arrives on the scene with her two children, his efforts to balance his spiralling addiction with his family commitments make up the bulk of the plot. Although I was frustrated by the book’s failure to explore the mechanics of time travel in more depth, I enjoyed the conflict between Dick and Vita. Vita has the not unreasonable request that Dick stops lazing about and takes a job – any job – that will a) get him out of the house and b) provide the family with a stable income. I wondered if Dick’s character was a bit of a comment on societal changes that were happening in the 50s and 60s. There were far fewer gentlemen of leisure by the time this was written than in the 20s and 30s, but it seems like that’s what Dick wants to be – someone who sits in a study and has important thoughts, maybe writing his memoirs, or coming up with impenetrable scholarly treatises. Except for the extremely wealthy, that was no longer an option by the 60s, but it seems like Dick’s fascination with the past was perhaps reflective of a desire to go back to a time before he would have had so many responsibilities. He becomes extremely nostalgic for the 14th century – which is preposterous, because of the Black Death and lack of penicillin, but he begins to find the people in the past more “real” than those in his present. The second half of the book is really about exploring what effect that has on him, psychologically and physiologically, and I found that interesting in itself – though I’d recommend The Psychology of Time Travel for a more in-depth consideration.

This was a buddy read with Melanie at Grab the Lapels, and I enjoyed our discussion of the book more than the book itself. We had an interesting chat about the difference between the UK and US attitudes to history, especially to old buildings. Because the UK is a very old country, it’s littered with houses dating back a few hundred years, and buildings from the late 19th or early 20th century are unremarkable. For example, I’ve lived in Southampton for 11 years and have had six addresses – of those six addresses, four had former residents who died in the sinking of the Titanic. I know where the first water fountain installed in the city was installed in the late 13th century, and every time I go into town, I walk by a medieval gatehouse that was built in the 12th century and is relatively intact. Growing up with long-established local history is the norm rather than the exception, and because of this we are awash in amateur local historians. Dick’s obsession with the history of Magnus’s house and the surrounding area therefore didn’t seem that peculiar to me, but Melanie was more surprised by it. We came to the conclusion that this is actually the same cultural difference that Dick and Vita encounter in the novel – Vita cannot understand Dick’s desire to know about the history of the area, because it’s not a cultural norm in the US in the same way. Melanie writes about this from her perspective in her review of the novel.

Since I love science fiction in general, and time travel in particular, I suppose I’m picky about details. There wasn’t enough science fiction exposition in this novel for the science fiction aspects to capture me, and unfortunately the historical fiction parts didn’t feel alive enough to draw me in either. The House on the Strand has the disadvantage of competing with Doomsday Book in my affections – another time travel novel set partly in the 14th century, and one of my most beloved books of all time – but I think it still could have done so if either the science fiction or the historical fiction aspects had grabbed me. If you want the du Maurier touch but with historical fiction, I’d recommend Frenchman’s Creek instead. I haven’t read any of du Maurier’s other science fiction offerings yet, so I can’t make a recommendation for that aspect. If you are someone who likes to read everything by an author you love, this is worth reading, but if you’re just starting out with du Maurier, I’d say that Rebecca is her most famous work for a reason. Start there, and if you eventually get around to this, that’s all well and good – but don’t rush out and buy it.