The Parasites by Daphne du Maurier: a Book Review

Daphne Du Maurier has been one of my favourite authors ever since I read Rebecca as a young teenager. I’ve read quite a lot of her books, some more than once, but this is the first time I’ve read The Parasites.

This is different from the other books by Du Maurier that I’ve read. There’s no real mystery, no dramatic suspense, no need to hold your breath and wonder what comes next. In some ways it’s a family drama and in others it’s a psychological study. The characters, for the most part, are not likeable – they’re selfish and self-centred, the ‘dreadful Delaneys‘. They’re from the theatrical, artistic world and they mix with the rich and the upper classes. They are siblings, with famous parents – Pappy, a singer who is a  larger-than life character and Mama who is a dancer. Between them they have three children – Maria, who is Pappy’s daughter; Niall, who is Mama’s son; and Celia who is their daughter.

At the beginning of this book Charles, Maria’s husband accuses her and her stepbrother, Niall and half-sister Celia of being parasites:

… that’s what you are, the three of you. Parasites. The whole bunch. You always have been and you always will be. Nothing can change you. You are doubly, triply parasitic; first, because you’ve traded ever since childhood on that seed of talent you had the luck to inherit from your fantastic forbears; secondly, because you’ve none of you done a stroke of ordinary honest work in your lives, but batten upon us, the fool public who allow you to exist; and thirdly, because you prey upon each other, the three of you, living in a world of fantasy which you have created for yourselves and which bears no relation to anything in heaven or on earth. (page 5)

The narration alternates between the past and the present and between the first person narrator and third person description, which I found rather odd at first. The narrator could be any one of the three – Maria, Niall or Celia – or is it Daphne Du Maurier herself? I read Margaret Forster’s biography of Daphne a while ago and checked what she had to say about The Parasites. I wasn’t surprised to find out that this book is semi-autobiographical. Daphne had written to a friend in 1957 explaining that these characters were her ‘three inner selves’ and Margaret Forster considers that Pappy was modelled on Gerald, Daphne’s father.

It’s the relationships between the three siblings that forms the core of The Parasites. After Charles’s outburst the three of them discuss what he meant and go back through their lives. There are poignant moments as they remember the joys and difficulties of growing up and that strange realisation that you’re no longer a child:

Grown-up people … How suddenly would it happen, the final plunge into their world? Did it really come overnight, as Pappy said, between sleeping and waking? A day would come, a day like any other day, and looking over your shoulder you would see the shadow of the child that was, receding; and there would be no going back, no possibility of recapturing the shadow. You had to go on; you had to step forward into the future, however much you dreaded the thought, however much you were afraid. (page 61)

Like all of Du Maurier’s books I could visualise the scenes, almost as though I was really there. I may not have liked the characters but they are convincing –  I wouldn’t want to have to spend much time with any of them. But it’s not all intense. There is also humour to balance the drama, such as the hilarious scene where the Delaneys visit the Wyndham family soon after Maria has married Charles.

Even though this does not rank with my favourites of Daphne’s books I did enjoy it and it spurred me on to read My Cousin Rachel, which I’ve been meaning to read for years, and Justine Picardie’s novel, Daphne – more about both books another time.

  • Paperback: 352 pages
  • Publisher: Virago Press Ltd; New edition edition (5 May 2005)
  • Language English
  • ISBN-10: 1844080722
  • ISBN-13: 978-1844080724
  • Source: I bought it
  • My Rating: 3.5/5