A MARRIED COUPLE LAUGH together in a restaurant. They’re playing a game, making up stories about the strangers around them. Because they take the game so very seriously, we come to understand how little fun they are otherwise having. If only I can keep this going, the husband thinks, if only, if only… He can’t.
This is “Don’t Look Now,” the story that made me fall in love with Daphne Du Maurier’s work, and it is lovely and wistful and unsettling. Though she’s best known as a novelist, Du Maurier’s strange, often beautiful stories deserve to be more widely read than they are. Like her novels, they are built around elements of suspense, romance, and the supernatural, but they are less fettered by plot contrivances, and the best of them are heartbreaking. They show that Du Maurier, whose name is still associated to her detriment with middle-brow romance, is an altogether weirder and more modern writer than this slapdash categorization implies.
“Don’t Look Now,” which is available, along with her other strongest stories, in a great New York Review of Books classics edition, follows a couple named John and Laura on a trip to Venice, meant to rekindle their marriage after the tragic death of their young daughter, Christine. One of the unusual things about Du Maurier is that she wrote often and well from the perspective of men, and “Don’t Look Now” takes on John’s tense, rationalist point of view. He begins the story watching his wife anxiously for signs of hysteria and grief. Instead, after meeting a pair of Scottish sisters who claim to see Christine’s ghost, Laura is happy — and her happiness unnerves him more than anything else could have.
It’s these other women, the sisters, who upset the story’s fragile equilibrium and set it on its way. They keep referring to the “gift” of second sight, which John simultaneously refuses to believe in and is frightened by. Are these women harmless? Why is Laura so drawn to them? (Interestingly, given the story’s setting, “Venetian tendencies” is a euphemism Du Maurier used in life to refer to attractions between women.) John can’t trust his wife’s happiness, which feels to him like a betrayal, as it might to any grieving parent whose partner seems to be moving on.
“Don’t Look Now” brilliantly dramatizes the perils of looking — you can look too closely, or not closely enough, or sometimes both at the same time. What you think you see can’t be trusted; what you refuse to see may be your downfall. The story is rife with doubles, dark alleys, and confused or mistaken identities. What makes it more than a ghost story though, is how spookily tender it is. Its subject is the vulnerability of the family unit to the world outside, and the desperate, tenacious work of parents to protect it.
Many of Du Maurier’s works were made into films, notably Hitchcock’s Rebecca and The Birds, but Nicholas Roeg’s 1973 adaptation of “Don’t Look Now” is the one that most successfully captures Du Maurier’s special tone, the ghostly sensitivity of grief. Roeg made glorious use of color; the way red water spreads across a slide John is examining is both luscious and lurid. It also features intense chemistry between its leads, Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie, who are famously rumore...read more