Gods, I'd forgotten how good this book is. I read it some time ago, having discovered it in a forgotten corner of a second-hand bookshop (where quite a few of my favourite books have been found), and I do remember saying to someone at the time that it was "a new favourite". But after that I forgot it a little; it slipped down behind my mental bookcase, so to speak, until I picked it up, dusted it off, and re-read it.
My Arrow edition describes itself on the front as a "world-famous bestseller of romantic suspense", which makes it sound awful, like the Thirties equivalent of Fifty Shades of Grey or whatever. To be scrupulously fair, it is technically a romance: Maxim de Winter, landed gentleman, brings his young bride back to Manderley, his mansion by the sea, only to find that it is still haunted by the shadow of his first wife Rebecca, the beautiful socialite who drowned in the bay a year ago.
But I don't believe anyone reads Rebecca for the romantic plot. It's incredibly difficult to get behind this couple: Maxim is standoffish, peremptory and distant, while his unnamed wife, who narrates the novel, is naive, fearful and foolish, and I spent much of the novel wishing she would find a bit of backbone. As she observes at one point, much of her emotional struggle could have been avoided had she only confronted her husband, had only been a little bolder.
No, what marks Rebecca out is its remarkable atmosphere, its breathlessly claustrophobic prose which switches without warning from past tense to present, its narrative voice which is constantly putting itself somewhere else, imagining scenarios which don't exist and yet have a compelling and almost hypnotic reality. There's this constant sense of impending doom; the entire novel has that muggy, expectant quality you get a few hours before a really big summer storm. It's reminiscent in some ways of Radcliffe's hypnotic Mysteries of Udolpho, stripped of all the sensational Gothic machinery, so that all that's left, almost, is that haunted feeling, the hopeless sense that the past is so much stronger than the present can ever be.
It helps, of course, that I love reading about the Thirties anyway; there's something about that landed lifestyle, so close and yet so far from our own, that I find fascinating. And, of course, that charmed period between the wars is full of dramatic potential; one feels that the ghost of the Great War is hovering in the shadows of Rebecca, as well as, perhaps, the spectre of the one that was to come. It's a story of a charmed time in itself: a brief and dream-like summer, never to be re-captured, only remembered, ghostly and surreal and strange and compelling.