Dick Young is lent a house in Cornwall by his friend Professor Magnus Lane. During his stay he agrees to serve as a guinea pig for a new drug that Magnus has discovered in his scientific research.
When Dick samples Magnus's potion, he finds himself doing the impossible: traveling through time while staying in place, thrown all the way back into Medieval Cornwall. The concoction wear off after several hours, but its effects are intoxicating and Dick cannot resist his newfound powers. As his journeys increase, Dick begins to resent the days he must spend in the modern world, longing ever more fervently to get back into his world of centuries before, and the home of the beautiful Lady Isolda...
This is one of du Maurier's Cornish tales with a timeslip theme thrown in. It was published the year of my birth, so I was curious to see how the 'modern' thread had aged.
Dick Young, the main character, is staying at Kilmarth, the boyhood home of his friend, biophysicist Magnus Lane. (With a name like Magnus, I reckon his parents destined him to become a ground-breaking, experimental scientist. Doesn't it seem perfect for the stereotype?) As part of the deal, Magnus coerces Dick into sampling the wonder-drug he's been working on, which spirals its users back centuries, yet always on their own local turf.
Dick consistently ends up in the fourteenth century, and always touches base with a mysterious guy named Roger, prompting Dick to wonder whether Roger's brain is the random link to the mind of any time-tripper. Nobody from the 1300s, including Roger, ever seems to see futuristic visitors. Dick verifies Magnus' experience, that every sense, except for touch, is heightened whenever they visit the past. However, only their brains are really taking the trips. Their physical bodies are still lumbering blindly about in their contemporary world (1969), vulnerable to sudden peril such as collisions.
Dick keeps trying to convince himself that he's not addicted to his trips, but can't help admitting he is addicted to his infatuation with the beautiful Lady Isolda Carminowe, who keeps him returning for another 'fix' of her.
My googling tells me Dame Daphne got really excited about this story, considering it to be one of her finest. She intended for readers to be sucked into the implicit questions she was raising. Was Dick really progressing back in time, or was it some elaborate mental hallucination? Is the concept of time, rather than being a linear projection, 'all-dimensional' with past, present and future spinning like a wheel simultaneously? All Dick can say for sure is that the people he enjoys spying on have been dead for over 600 years, yet they're alive in his escape world. Sounds like a recipe for a page-turner, right?
Sadly, it fell flat for me. Neither of the two time periods held my interest. The political intrigue and family saga of Roger and Isolda's world felt like wading through quicksand. There are far too many family connections to keep track of and too much standing around talking. As for Dick, he lives up to his name too well. Each of his unfolding personal disclosures made me eyeroll more.
He flicks his cigarette butts around the countryside, he hasn't visited his mother in over a year because he's too lazy, he's getting tired of his wife, Vita, after just a few years of marriage, and prefers his 'trips' to stalk the more attractive Isolda. He professes to have not a flicker of interest in his two young stepsons, who incidentally strike me as nicer people than he is. He gets grouchy and irritable with everyone in his real world. He resents Vita for her concern regarding him, which turns out to be completely justified. I kept finding the pages of Dick's narration progressively harder to turn.
All this story really has going for it is du Maurier's hallmark description of Cornwall. Sadly, Cornwall alone is insufficient to maintain my interest in a story with a crawling plot and unlikeable characters. The premise sounded great... but it fell short. Sorry Dame Daphne, it's a no from me.