What a great novel this is. So much happens in it, and yet, very little does. We are shown so much, and yet we are no nearer fully understanding these characters. It’s edgy, unsettling, comic, and darkly poignant. A curious mixture but oh, so wonderfully blended together.
One Sunday afternoon, as Maria, Niall and Celia Delaney are resting before Sunday dinner, Maria’s husband, Charles, refers to the three siblings as parasites. As they consider the meaning behind his accusation, they find themselves drawn into reminisces about their past: how growing up in the shadow of their famous, artistic parents has shaped their own lives and motivations. Maria is now an actress, living between a London flat and her husband’s inherited country estate. Niall has become a popular composer, torn between spells of unstoppable inspiration and lethargy. Celia, meanwhile, is trying to make herself useful as the unmarried, unemployed relation: after spending years caring for their ailing father, she has been looking after Maria’s children more and more since his death. Some uncomfortable truths are brought to the surface, leaving the Delaneys to wonder if life will ever be the same again.
When I say this novel is fascinating, I’m not just saying so as a self-confessed du Maurier fan (though obviously, that does come into it). The Parasites is genuinely one of the most curious, chameleonic novels I’ve read. As with du Maurier’s other works, The Parasites resists categorisation, but there’s a knowing playfulness throughout this book which exaggerates this further.
Many readers know the famed opening lines from Rebecca, arguably du Maurier’s most well-known and popular novel, but here, she delivers another intriguing beginning to hook readers in and give a sense of what is to come.
“It was Charles who called us the parasites.”
This ‘outburst’, we are told, had ‘force of an explosion’, and as the novel progresses, we see just how true this opening becomes. The ‘us’, as we find out, refers to the Delaney siblings, but rather than defining that first speaker, either into one of the siblings or as a separate feature, du Maurier allows it to remain floating there, indeterminate. The perspective will shift between Maria, Niall and Celia as they each reflect on their experiences, but they flow into one another, even feed off each other, becoming the ‘we’ that is present throughout.
Through the intense closeness of the siblings, du Maurier explores some of the darker or forbidden recesses of human behaviour and relationships. While they are not related by blood – though both are related to Celia – Maria and Niall have never known life without one another, meaning that characters and readers alike feel uncertain when confronted by their closeness. They are intuitive to one another’s moods, and will drop any other commitments instantly should the other need it. There are certainly echoes of Cathy and Heathcliff, another intense quasi-sibling relationship characterised by obsession, yet unlike Bronte’s novel, there is no opportunity to even begin to romanticise Maria and Niall’s pairing. Du Maurier never allows us to imagine that Maria and Niall, in other circumstances, may have been able to (or would want to) pursue a stable relationship: they are too selfish, too in need of control.
Celia, meanwhile, is left on the outside, always looking to find her place within a family in which she, ordinarily, would have had the most firm connections. Her insecurity disproves the notion that blood ties trump all others, and her instinctive response is not to follow their lead into professional or personal dramatics. Rather, she seeks to become invaluable to them in the nitty-gritty of their daily lives, listening to their troubles, caring for their father for years, visiting Maria to help with the children. Yet, being more self-conscious than either of her siblings, she knows that they do not really appreciate her, and that she is using them too, as excuses not to break away and forge her own path. She knows she is a coward, too frightened of stepping outside of familiar territory however dissatisfying it is for her.
The contrast between these characters and the externally glamorous backdrop of theatrical and high society in the early twentieth century is no accident. This is the world du Maurier herself grew up in, with both parents working on the stage. She saw and experienced directly the effects that playing ‘characters’ for a living could have on someone’s personal life, or indeed, their very sense of self. She knew what it meant to be driven by artistic inspiration; to devote time, energy, and emotion into a creation, and then once it’s complete and given to an audience, it is no longer one’s own, leaving behind a feeling like emptiness. The surreal nature of such existence may also be seen in the dual trajectories of the book. In 3 hours on stage, actors can portray a character’s entire life-story. In The Parasites, in ‘real-time’, we are with the Delaney’s for one Sunday, and portions of the following two days. Yet over the course of that day, we delve into so much of their past, shared and individual. In the present, they lounge in Maria’s sitting room, change for the evening meal, and talk – but life alters for all of them in unimaginable ways because of this.
So though a lot of this novel may be understood as satirical – du Maurier’s dark wit provides some genuine laugh-out-loud moments – the overarching trajectory was rather bleak and heart-breaking. Celia’s character and journey may be the more clearly relatable or sympathetic one given that she is sacrificing, kind, ignored, but clearly talented. Yet moments in Maria’s story were powerfully poignant. At one point, Niall observes that:
“She was no longer Mary Rose, she was no longer anyone […] She had watched Mama, and then turned to the mirrors on the wall, and the gestures that she copied were borrowed, not her own…”
Maria, outwardly assured, is revealed to be a lost woman, as much devoid of her own personality as her sister. Niall too, fails to find enjoyment from his professional success, constantly seeking approval from others yet distancing himself from them too. The three of them know the parts they are expected to play, but have little understanding of who they actually are or what they want.
So they cling to one another – the unusual character of their childhood, their family dynamics – binds them, sustains them, and provides some semblance of security to stop them feeling totally adrift from normality. Maria, so fiercely independent, calls both of them for support when she is left alone with her newborn daughter for the first time, which leads to a hilarious escapade with Niall in their attempts to soothe the baby’s cries. Celia stays at Maria’s house every weekend just to feel useful to someone. They indulge in nostalgia and reminisces following Charles’ comment, but they have been obsessed with clinging to the past for much longer. Parasites indeed.
Du Maurier often confessed to experiencing a fragmentation within her identity; between her own desires and others’ expectations. One might argue that as well as drawing on aspects of her father’s theatrical life, she used much of her own conflict to create these difficult yet fascinating characters. Perhaps the seamless flowing between the Delaney voices and into the ‘we’ narrative voice reflected the multitudes she felt in her own character.
The Parasites is a richly layered and complex novel, and du Maurier uses so much of the style and technique that made her a household name within its pages. That’s why I’m surprised it’s not more well-known. Whether you’re a fan of du Maurier like me, or new to her work, I wholeheartedly recommend picking up a copy of The Parasites. It’s a fascinating read, and in my opinion, an absolute underrated gem of a novel.