Sally Beauman's companion to Rebecca is bold and clever. Bold in so far as it requires courage to muscle in on another author's imaginative landscape convincingly. Just read a couple of pages of the dismal Jane Austen also-rans or the Zhivago sequels. Furthermore, in choosing to continue the story of Daphne du Maurier's classic, Beauman has pitted her skills against a novel whose haunting dissonance and popular reach is still as powerful as it ever was.
What is curious is that the novels in this category that triumphantly live in their own right are linked.
Both Jean Rhys's desolate Wild Sargasso Sea and Rebecca spring from Charlotte Brontë's masterpiece, Jane Eyre, once described by Angela Carter as "a delirious romance, replete with the elements of pure fairytale, given its extraordinary edge by the sheer emotional intelligence of its writer".
Here Beauman's cleverness comes into play. In Rebecca's Tale she has seized on those essential ingredients - the lush, heavy atmosphere, the Gothic undertones, the thriller elements, the sexual and psychological divisions and tensions, and built on to them a contemporary construction.
Instead of the sole narrator - Jane herself or the shy inexperienced second Mrs de Winter in whom we are persuaded to believe - she conducts an exercise in fictional relativity and introduces conflicting voices who, 20 years after Rebecca's death, are preoccupied with the same question: who was Rebecca?
There is Colonel Julyan, a magistrate and closet romantic, haunted by the image of the beautiful dead woman. The second is the scholarly Tom Grey, who questions the Colonel's objectivity. But what about his own, particularly as Grey is convinced that he is intimately related to Rebecca? Ellie, Colonel Julyan's slim, clear-eyed daughter, arrives at yet another view about the mysterious woman and her death. And not least, there is the voice of Rebecca herself welling up through the recently discovered notebooks that Ellie reads. "Callous and cynical - and so terribly restless," pronounces the second Mrs de Winter, making a brief, shadowy appearance. But Ellie is tougher and bolder and, in piecing together the hinterland to the de Winter's courtship, their marriage and Rebecca's death, she realises that Rebecca "wasn't without heirs after all", "I speak," writes Rebecca, "for a long, long line of dispossessed."
The vice-like grip and dark pulse of the original Rebecca may be impossible to match but, in this evocative and compulsive reworking of the balance of power between the sexes, Sally Beauman steers her creation into feminist territory and succeeds in overturning our loyalties.
The Times, 15.9.01.
Who can ever forget Rebecca? Daphne du Maurier's spellbinding classic is one of those brilliant, atmospheric novels that work their way into your subconscious and even haunt your dreams.
One of its fascinating idiosyncrasies is the fact that we feel as if we know Rebecca, can visualise her, even smell her perfume, yet she has actually been long dead before the story begins.
She is presented to us through the eyes of others. Rebecca's is an unresolved story that shrieks out for more. Was she really the femme fatale of bewitching beauty as described by her friends. Or was she a manipulative bitch? Was her death really suicide? Or was it murder?
Susan Hill did a great Gothic job in 1995 with her sequel, Mrs de Winter, and now Sally Beauman has produced a massive, intricate novel, moving the story forward to the early 1950s and exploring the mysteries that surrounded Rebecca's life and daeth.
In Beauman's book, tongues are still wagging in the little Cornish village of Kerrith.
It is 20 years since the inquest, since the controversial 'suicide' verdict was passed, and since the dreaded Mrs Danvers subsequently ran amok with a candle causing Manderley, the de Winter ancient mansion, to be burnt down.
We learn that the second Mrs de Winter has emigrated to Canada, and Maxim has been dead for five years after crashing his car into the dilapidated gates of Manderley.
Various of the original book's characters are still alive and kicking and all too happy to rake up gossip about Rebecca.
Old family friend Colonel Julyan is now a semi-invalid cared for by his devoted daughter Ellie.
It was the Colonel's silent endorsement of the coroner's verfict that crucially allowed Maxim to walk free, and for 20 years he has blamed himself for not challenging the verdict.
Not a day passes when he doesn't remember Rebecca, not a night when he doesn't experience nightmares from which he wakes sitting bolt upright and crying Rebecca's name.
To make matters worse a young historian has arrived in the village and is sniffing round for further facts about the Manderley Mystery, as it has come to be called.
Suddenly, the Colonel receives an anonymous package.
With a sense of foreboding he opens it with trembling fingers, to find a black notebook with the words 'Rebecca's Tale' written inside, and two pictures, a photo of Rebecca as a little girl, and a postcard of Manderley. To the Colonel it appears to be a message from the dead, a sign that the truth must be told at last.
Deeply distressed he recalls a last conversation with Rebecca as they tramped along the cliffs. In the bloom of life and heart-stoppingly beautiful, she had told him that when she died she wanted to be buried in the churchyard overlooking the sea and not in the mouldering de Winter crypt.
If her wishes weren't fulfilled, she warned the Colonel that he'd regret it: "I hate the crypt and I hate the people in it. I'll come back and haunt you. I'll never rest there."
Five months later she was dead. When her body was finally recovered from the sea she had been buried against her wishes in the crypt. The Colonel can never forget her threat to return and haunt him.
Spooky, huh? And there's the mysterious package. Who has sent it? And who has laid a garland of Rebecca's favourite flowers at her special place on the sea shore?
Obviously someone else out there is also obsessed with Rebecca. Could the finger be pointing to the ghastly Mrs Danvers?
Beauman's novel unfolds through the thoughts and actions of three people - the Colonel, Ellie and the historian, and through the ramblings of Rebecca herself, in a long and passionate letter to her unborn child.
Her writing is full of feisty revelations about dark family secrets, a childhood rape, a scheming determination to become the mistress of Manderley, a rushed marriage after a weekend of passion and Maxim's subsequent feebleness in the bedroom department.
In Beauman's book, Maxim is certainly not the suave, irresistible, strong and silent type we all thought he was. Nothing at all like Sir Laurence Olivier portrayed him in the famous movie.
Frankly I always thought Maxim was a bounder, and could never understand any woman falling for a patronising toff who addresses her as "young little fool".
In the original Rebecca, the second Mrs de Winter dreams constantly of vanished Manderley and tells us "the house was a sepulchre, our fear and suffering lay buried in the ruins. There would be no resurrection". Ha!
Little could she imagine that Sally Beauman was out there with her fertile imagination, her crafty plotting and her word-processor.
Her story has more twists than a stick of barley sugar, enough shocks and surprises to keep you on your toes, and it will certainly have you dreaming that you went to Manderley again.
Daily Mail, 14.9.01.