My cousin Rachel. A bewitching and remarkable multi-layered novel.
Warning! Spoilers ahead.
So glad I discovered this book via a book lovers club. Not sure if my write-up qualifies as a full-fledged review rather than as a set of observations and analysis of the story.
It is one of those books that tends to “over” stimulate your thinking and compel you to re-read several of the parts to unwind the strings of a mysteriously and intricately knotted yarn to get to the oblique and elusive core that lies at the heart of the plot and minds of the main characters.
What started out as smooth and gripping, slowly gave way to a disturbing turn as the realization set in that this is an obscure psychological thriller at its core, a satire on social norms and attitudes with a sharp and incisive feministic slant of the gifted author’s pen, a sophisticated play on the dark and twisted side of human psyche cloaked in common emotions, beguilingly wrapped in family sentiments and romance in a Gothic setting.
The narrative begins as the brooding protagonist’s reminiscence, at the end of the dark deed that serves as a finale or an invite to delve into the story after having read it.
As you linger over the last line of the novel with a deepening frown, it makes you wonder if the event described at the very beginning was being served like a self-fulfilling prophecy and to instill the niggling feeling of censure in the reader against a parent figure exposing a child of tender age to such a disquieting experience, a strong clue to dysfunctional parenting and sadistic behaviour. Multiple clues, both subtle, strong and nuanced seem to have been planted strategically in multiple places in the narrative, challenging the reader to extrapolate and interpret beyond the narrator’s viewpoint, which rather than setting a limitation as a “single point of view handicap”, functions to provide a complex and kaleidoscopic view of the events and characters.
The emotions and sentiments presented initially, appear rather commonplace and universal really, applicable to even the current day social structure. Especially the aspect of blaming a male relative’s change of attitude or his dismal fate to the woman he has married and the influence she is perceived to have wielded over him, apart from being regarded as an intruder and usurper and the “sibling-rivalry” like reaction of the closest blood relations of the male relative towards his wife.
This story started out no different than countless formulaic Indian movies I have seen over the years, in terms of the underlying sentiments presented.
A boy having being orphaned at a very young age is raised by his older cousin Ambrose, an introverted bachelor who plays the role of a mother and father to the young boy Philip, imbibing in him the moral values very specific to the world they dwell in. Ambrose is an eccentric and egocentric and he raises the boy who happens to be his look-alike, in his own mental image in a male-only household by design, in the backdrop of a man-centered world which holds a rather derisive and lack-a-daisical view towards women in general. Given the circumstances of his sheltered upbringing, Philip considers it a rather happy childhood filled with warm memories and Ambrose has grown beyond a parental figure into a larger-than-life hero in his mind, who he wants to mimic. When Ambrose travels to a foreign country on account of his ill health and meets and marries a foreigner, it brings forth a surge of uncomfortable and unexpected emotions in Philip. Emotions of jealousy, possessiveness and sibling-like-rivalry against this mysterious new woman, dominate the mind of Ambrose’s young adoptive son, as he tries hard to conceal them, castigating himself for harbouring them in the first place.
The last few letters with writings or ramblings of Ambrose before his death, scar Philip’s psyche irrevocably, triggering in a way the feelings that lead up to the tragic turn of events.
As the story progresses, Ambrose’s widow who starts out as Philip’s singular object of hate and vengeance undergoes dramatic multi-dimensional transformations with almost surgical precision after she meets him and starts staying with him, as she takes on the persona of a stranger who thaws the cold suspicion in his heart with a sense of humour that seems to both irk and please him, a friend and confidante, a strange foreigner, a mother figure, a lover, a potential wife and finally emerging in his mind as an untrustworthy, cheating and manipulative evil woman deserving of his hate and vengeance, coming a full circle.
A multi-faceted realistic and plausible personality of a fiercely independent and impulsive woman of the world, both frail and strong with a feministic edge is painted in the process, despite being rendered through the point of view of a single character, Philip.
The physical appearance of his object of desire, suspicion and hate, Rachel, is glaringly at odds with what he perceives her to be, even after meeting and spending time with her. Philip finds himself unable to reconcile her dainty looks with her exuberant and gregarious personality. This is apparent based on the various times he remarks especially on her small stature.
Some mind-boggling questions that stay with you after you have read the book –
Was Ambrose truly innocent or manipulative as he knowingly or unknowingly planted the evil seed of doubt and vengeance in his young impressionable cousin’s mind knowing the powerful influence he wielded over him?
Was Louise’s interpretation of the letters truly objective or with a manipulative motive, geared against Cousin Rachel so that she could earn Philip’s affections? Did Philip’s godfather Kendall’s motive mirror Louise’s once he realized the extent of Philip’s infatuation towards Rachel and was dismayed that his daughter Louise doesn’t stand a chance of marrying Philip with Rachel in the scene?
Almost every character viewed through the jaundiced eyes of the narrator come across as milder versions of Philip, narcissistic, self-serving, possessive, jealous and selfish if you delve into it, including the domestic workers whose loyalty and attitude conveniently and swiftly swing towards who they believe will head the household and control the purse strings.
Was Rachel truly innocent or manipulative as she played with the younger man’s emotions, knowing the devastating effect she had over him? Or did she equally find herself helplessly and hopelessly drawn into the web of desire spun by the “poisoned” mind, ironically, of a man who bore a marked resemblance in looks and thoughts to the man or rather his ghost she was still obsessively in love with, despite his abuse?
Did Rachel even reciprocate Philip’s love at any point of time or consummate it or was that just a delusion of Philip?
Finally what was the purpose of Laburnum seeds found in her drawer, if they were not a product of Philip’s hyper-active imagination?
Was it planted there by one of the other characters in the story to deliberately arouse and fan the flames of Philip’s suspicion into a raging fire? Louise or Mary Pascoe or Seecombe maybe?
Or slick Rainaldi planted it perhaps, considering he is the common thread that runs havoc in both Philip and Ambrose’s lives and rather than really desire Rachel for himself as he seems to let on, he actually plans to usurp Rachel’s and Philip’s and Ambrose’s properties? This possibility gives the already tragic story a more intensely sad edge as you berate the protagonist for having been fooled so pathetically.
Or did the seeds really did belong to Rachel and were part of her truly diabolic plan or her flimsy “stereotypical woman’s” defense against physical and mental abuse she anticipated from Philip, who she perceived to be the younger double of a man who seems to have subjected her to mental and physical torture or perhaps she innocently used them as an insecticide or to kill weeds considering she is passionate about gardening?
Starting as a deceptively objective narration it smoothly turns unsettlingly subjective as you realize the events and all the characters in the story are experienced through the warped and delusional mind of a young man who happens to be narcissistic and hypocritical, apart from harbouring other psychological issues probably due to a combination of his genes and rather unnatural upbringing. Glaringly hypocritical state of mind is exposed at multiple levels, as apart from other things he seems perfectly comfortable flouting the social norms without so much as a mere thought as he cavorts and covets his cousin’s widow openly, while she is expected to conform to unrealistic norms ranging from her dress to interactions and choice of day to day activities and her spending habits.
Well, it was overall a fascinating and entertaining read, that begs to be dissected and pondered over. A novel that I found to be unconventional and far ahead of its time.
A parting thought. Considering the movie based on this book is to be released soon, can’t help but share some views on this as well.
I wonder if Rachel Weisz was casted because of her middle parting hairstyle among other things. Would have helped keep it true to the book, if the identity of the actress playing Rachel and her face was not revealed in the poster or the trailer, considering that in the first quarter of the book, Rachel does not even make a physical appearance, but takes various shapes and forms in Philip’s fertile mind. Something that adds to the charm and enticingly mysterious nature of the narrative.