The Winters

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Written by Lisa Gabriele — Lisa Gabriele set herself a high bar in tackling a modern reimagining of Daphne du Maurier’s classic psychological thriller, Rebecca, with its famous first line—“Last night I dreamed I went again to Manderley.”

Gabriele’s first line, “Last night Rebekah tried to murder me again” is startling, if lacking the poetic power of the original.

Nevertheless, a novel is more than its opening line. I reread the set-up for du Maurier’s gothic novel to reacquaint myself with the story and her style and to be better able to assess whether Gabriele’s new novel stands up to the original, with which it so deliberately invites comparison. I ended up with a mixed opinion.

As in the original, Gabriele’s unnamed narrator does not fit easily in the social set of the new man in her life, in this instance her fiancé, wealthy New York Senator Maxim Winter. Feeling out of place is a significant source of the narrator’s unease and feelings of inadequacy. Winter dismisses these feelings on the part of the unsophisticated young woman he’s chosen despite, or perhaps because of, her stark dissimilarity to his late wife, the beautiful, charming and talented Rebekah. It’s difficult to warm up to the younger woman, which is odd with a first-person narrator, and she’s not wholly convincing character.

As in the original, most of the story takes place at a legendary and enormous family residence. The Winter estate, Asherley, was built on its own island at the far eastern end of Long Island, New York, facing the sea, whereas you may recall Manderley was located in Cornwall.

In a brilliant move by Gabriele, the narrator’s antagonist is not the housekeeper and confidant of the late Mrs Winter (Mrs. Danvers in the original). In her version, the principal opposition to the marriage and to the narrator herself comes from Max and Rebekah’s teenage daughter, Dani. Many of us have seen how fraught relationships with step-children can be, and this is a persuasive adjustment to modern times. There is a lot going on with Dani, though her rebellious teenage machinations are hard to forgive, for narrator and reader alike.

While the set-up of the two novels is reasonably similar, their plots begin to diverge about half-way through. Even so, having Dani volunteer to help the narrator find a wedding dress evokes nail-biting echoes of disaster that play out in a completely unexpected way.

Gabriele’s writing style is, of course, markedly different from that of a novel written 80 years ago. Still, I miss the long loopy sentences and lush descriptions. In the new version, you see the Winter mansion through modern eyes and a more practical, less dreamy way. In place of a wall of blood-red rhododendrons is a profusion of vases full of Rebekah’s favoured deep red roses. Tastes differ as to whether a more florid style better fits a romantic story about a woman blinded by love – or is she? – and haunted by her dead rival.

Gabriele’s narrator is a refreshingly modern woman, appreciative of Max Winter’s extreme wealth, but not overawed by it. Even so, she finds herself trapped by circumstance. In today’s world a difficult housekeeper would be dismissed; it’s not so easy to divest oneself of a step-daughter, even a calculating, substance-abusing, foul-mouthed one like Dani. At times the characterisation of the teenager is over-the-top and you may be grateful for the timely visits of Max’s sensible sister and brother-in-law. Gabriele, having set aside the evil housekeeper, finds new ways for Rebekah’s memory to torment the new Mrs Winter, while the ghost of du Maurier’s Rebecca necessarily haunts The Winters.

Another super-classic story updated is David Hewson’s Juliet & Romeo, as well as new stories with classic characters, like The Black-Eyed Blonde, by Benjamin Black.

Harvill Secker

CFL Rating: 3 Stars

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