Emma awakes one morning to the sound of aircraft overhead, an American warship at anchor in the bay, and US Marines making their way through the fields. Following its exit from the Common Market (European Union), Britain, with high unemployment and close to bankruptcy, has formed a coalition with America.
So opens Rule Britannia, in a rural area on the coast of Cornwall, where Emma lives with her grandmother Mad and her six adopted boys. The arrival of the US Marines is intended to be a peaceful precursor to the establishment of the USUK coalition, but when a soldier shoots the local farmer's sheep dog, it sets off a series of events that transforms the situation into a military occupation.
What unfolds, is how Emma and Mad deal with the threat to their family and community. We follow the story from Emma's point of view, and although she appears to react to the situation very differently to her grandmother, we're told at the beginning of the book, "they were equal in power, she and Mad, they were identical faces on either side of a coin.".
Never having experienced life under occupation, I can't comment on Du Maurier's opinion that the "old mocked, the young threw sand and stones," and that "it was only the middle-aged and the up-and-coming who collaborated with the invaders." But it does seem likely that in the face of restrictions on liberty, one would need to remain positive and perhaps use humour to cope. Throughout the narrative, Du Maurier switches back and forth between the humorous actions of Mad and her boys and the invading forces' increasingly vicious, repressive treatment of the community. For example, there's a recurring joke involving the older boys teaching the 3-year-old Ben new words. They start with "shit," then move on to other four-letter words. It's not laugh-out-loud humour, but it serves to counterpoint the violence of military occupation.
I prefer Du Maurier's Don't Look Now and Other Stories, and of course Rebecca. But Rule Britannia's plot and subject matter can't really be compared to these. The writing style is a little old fashioned and consequently the characters feel as if they are rooted in upper class 1930s-1950s English society, which they are. But it's an easy read and left me musing over such questions as at what age should a child be held responsible for committing serious crimes, how the acquisition and loss of power changes people, and where one's loyalties should usefully be placed on the scale of family, community, nation, continent and world.