Having read only novels by Daphne du Maurier so far, I was keen to explore some of her short stories, and Daphne du Maurier Reading Week hosted by Ali at Heavenali (find links to all the posts here), seemed the perfect time to do it, so for the second of my two reads for this week (the first was a reread of My Cousin Rachel, review here), I picked The Breaking Point, a collection first published in 1959. This is a collection of eight stories, most with darker themes (with the exception of one I think), and most also with a bit of a twist. We meet a range of characters, from a child to a hunter to royalty, and also do some travelling, from Venice to Greece to even a Ruritanian kingdom.
The first story, The Alibi is about James Fenton, an ordinary salaried man, out on a Sunday afternoon walk with his wife when something in him snaps. Suddenly disgusted with the world around him, he comes up with a sinister plan—to randomly murder someone. He picks a shabby home in a shabby neighbourhood, where the caretaker is a young woman with a child, and leases a room there in the guise of an artist seeking a quiet space to work. When he arrives there with his art supplies, he begins to find that he is actually enjoying the process of painting. In this story, like in My Cousin Rachel, which I just revisited, I felt du Maurier like a puppet master played with us as well, getting us to see certain things, and then throwing in a twist, and then a further one which we don’t see coming at all. This was a really enjoyable one for me.
The Blue Lenses is probably my favourite, and also the most unnerving in the book, where it isn’t perhaps only the main character who is wondering what game is being played with her, but us as well. We have Marda West in hospital for an eye surgery which is supposed to return her vision to her; there is to be a fitting of temporary blue lenses followed by permanent ones. She is full of hope and excited to see her husband again but also all the nurses and doctors who have been attending her. But when she opens her eyes after her surgery she is greeted not by the sight of people but of various animals—each person she sets her eyes on is one, a cow, a dog, a snake, and an ape. No matter where she looks. Is this just her mind playing games with her or is there a deeper conspiracy involved? Another one with a twist (perhaps not as much of a surprise as in the first story, but one nonetheless), and one which would make a fairly fun Halloween read.
Next was Ganymede, where our narrator who usually spends his vacation with his sister and her family, finds himself heading to Venice for his sister cannot have him down this year. There, after dinner one evening, he sees and is immediately smitten by a young waiter, whom he begins to refer to as Ganymede. He begins to return every evening, and tries to help when he learns the young man wants to work in England. But soon he becomes embroiled with the young man’s not so savoury uncle as well. In this one, we are pretty much told right at the start (and would have probably guessed even if we weren’t) that this will only lead to doom, but what we don’t see coming is the little twist du Maurier throws in at the end. While I enjoyed the surprise at the end, I was a little uncomfortable with this one because of the age of the young man.
The next story, The Pool is that of a thirteen-year old girl, Deborah who is spending her summer with her younger brother Roger at their grandparents. She likes spending time in the garden but more so near a pool in the woods (‘The woods were made for secrecy.’) to which she has been making offerings—like her prized ‘lucky’ pencil. Trying to give her brother other games to play, she gets away and is drawn more and more by the pool’s magic, and the dark images it seems to throw up. While the themes here of a secret space, and loss are dark, I didn’t somehow enjoy this one as much as the previous ones because from those, I was expecting a story on very different lines than this one turned out. Perhaps if I read it separately, it would fare far better.
The Archduchess, the next story was also very different from the initial stories. Set in a Ruritanian kingdom, Ronda, where is found (or was found) a spring with water that would give one eternal youth. This is a magical kingdom where people are content and happy, traditions are followed and life goes on. But then a couple of people, one discontented and another greedy begin to stir up trouble, and the idyll is lost forever. While this may have been set in a fictional space, its exploration of the seeds of discontent media could (and does) stir up was very well done. No twists or surprises here, but still a very good story.
The lightest story in the book was The Menace, the story of Barry Jean, an English-born Hollywood star, popular, well loved, who has lived life just as dictated by his wife May and his staff, is suddenly found wanting when the ‘feelies’ require him to show certain emotion on a gadget which he fails to do. His wife and friends try to right things but the solution it seems lies somewhere else altogether. This one was very different from anything I’ve read and really also from all the other stories in the book, and it certainly brought a smile to my face.
In The Chamois, we meet Stephen who is obsessed with hunting a chamois to such an extent that he cancels his holiday plans and rushes off with his wife to the Pindus in Greece where chamois have been sighted. Narrated by his wife, who is unhappy in their relationship but accompanies him all the same, we travel with them to Greece where they have a rat-faced cook and creepy goatherd for company. Then guided by the goatherd who makes our narrator uncomfortable, they set off. This story was a touch confusing for me, for while I followed the bits about the changes this trip brings to their understanding of each other and their relationship, I was a little unsure about the actual hunt, and its outcome. Also being a story about hunting I wasn’t able to enjoy it as I would other themes.
The book closes with another differently dark story, The Lordly Ones where a mute boy Ben is misunderstood by his parents, who seem to have little idea how to bring him up or look after him and subject him to verbal and physical abuse. When the family moves from Exeter to the moors, he little understands where and why they are going. Once there, another bit of misunderstanding of what (or who) the moors are leads him to come across another family which he finds very different from his own. While Ben finds some comfort in them, it is sadly not one that can last.
Exploring a range of themes, from murder and conspiracy to politics, from love and breakups to loss and absence of love, this turned out to be a (mostly) enjoyable collection of stories, some playing with one’s mind, and others with one’s emotions.