Having enjoyed some of Daphne du Maurier’s other short story collections – The Birds and Other Stories, The Rendezvous and Other Stories and Don’t Look Now and Other Stories – I’ve been looking forward to reading this one. Originally published in 1959 and written at a time when du Maurier herself said she had been close to a nervous breakdown, the eight stories in this collection are particularly dark and unsettling.
There is a paragraph just before the introduction in my Virago edition of the book which gives an idea of the common theme linking the stories and why the title The Breaking Point was chosen:
There comes a moment in the life of every individual when reality must be faced. When this happens, it is as though a link between emotion and reason is stretched to the limit of endurance, and sometimes snaps. In this collection of stories, men, women, children and a nation are brought to the breaking-point. Whether the link survives or snaps, the reader must judge for himself.
I enjoyed this book, but I found the first three stories by far the strongest and some of the others slightly disappointing in comparison. For this reason, I preferred The Birds and Don’t Look Now, which I felt were more even in quality. Anyway, the first story in the book, The Alibi, gets the collection off to a great start. A man, bored with his life, his marriage and his daily routine, makes an impulsive decision to rent a room in a house chosen at random. Adopting a new identity, soon he is spending every spare moment at the house, but what is his real motive for doing this? This is a creepy and disturbing story; the suspense builds and builds as we wait to see whether it will end in the way we hope it won’t!
The Blue Lenses is a very strange story about Marda West, a woman who has been having eye surgery. When her bandages are removed and she is fitted with a new pair of lenses, she finds that the people around her look very unusual – in fact, you could say that she is finally seeing them for what they really are. I can’t say much more without completely spoiling the story, but Marda’s situation is both frightening and fascinating. I loved this story and thought the twist at the end was perfect.
The next one, Ganymede, reminded me of Death in Venice by Thomas Mann, both in setting and in plot. A man is visiting Venice for a relaxing October break when a young man working in a restaurant catches his eye. As the days go by, he becomes more and more obsessed with the young waiter, whom he thinks of as ‘Ganymede’. This is another very suspenseful story, as it quickly becomes obvious that things are not going to go smoothly for our narrator – and in du Maurier’s hands, Venice becomes an eerie and sinister setting where we know some sort of tragedy is going to happen.
In the next story, The Pool, we meet Deborah and Roger, two children staying at their grandparents’ house for the summer. One day Deborah escapes from her younger brother and enters the woods nearby, where she discovers a pool which seems to lead into a secret world. I didn’t like this story as much as the first three – although, as always, du Maurier’s descriptions are beautiful and vivid. The Archduchess, which follows, is an account of a revolution in a fictional European country called Ronda. This was the only story in the collection that actually bored me – there seemed to be a huge amount of world-building and scene-setting, with very little plot or depth of character – but it’s possible that I didn’t fully understand what she was trying to say.
I wasn’t sure what to make of The Menace either. It seemed like a science fiction story at first, about a new filming technology known as ‘feelies’ where actors are wired up to a machine powered by their own life-force. This aspect of the story is never really explained, but I did enjoy getting to know actor Barry Jeans as we follow him through a twenty-four-hour period and I loved the ending. The Chamois is another of the weaker stories in the collection, but still an interesting one. A woman travels to Greece with her husband so that he can hunt chamois, but as they climb further into the mountains, the cracks in their marriage start to show and the woman’s deepest fears become exposed.
Finally, The Lordly Ones is a great story to finish with. Ben is a young mute boy who feels neglected and unloved by his parents. When the family move to a new house in the countryside, he escapes to the moors one night and for the first time in his life feels welcomed and cared for by another family he thinks of as The Lordly Ones. This is a very short story with a clever twist at the end that made me want to go back to the beginning and read it again!
Overall, I do recommend The Breaking Point but if you’re new to du Maurier’s short stories, I would suggest reading The Birds or Don’t Look Now collections first as I thought they were stronger. I still have The Doll, her collection of ‘lost’ stories to read, and will try to get to that book soon.